Scripture Readings: Book of Exodus 22:20-26; First Thessalonians 1:5-10; Gospel According to Saint Matthew 22:34-40

In today’s Gospel, a Scribe, who would be considered a teacher of God’s Law and a moral guide of the people, wants to hear what Jesus believes to be the essence of the divine law, the greatest of the commandments. Perhaps the question arose not so much as a challenge to Jesus, but from a genuine pastoral concern, that is, how best might the Scribe convey to others in helping them live faithfully according to the Law of God.

It is understandable that the question about the “greatest commandment” would be a useful thing to know, since in fact there were six hundred thirteen commandments in the Jewish Law, and many less important ones, called interdictions and precepts. Hence, it was not just a matter of asking the most important of what we today call the “Ten Commandments.” That would theoretically be a much easier answer, but the Scribe wanted to hear the opinion of Jesus in the matter regarding a multitude of commandments!

In Jesus’ time keeping the many commandments was considered a crucial part of a faithful adherence to God, and so to hear what was the greatest of the commandments would be very helpful to say the least.

In order to inspire people to fidelity in their religious observance, Rabbinic teachers at that time insisted on the equal importance of the smallest and the greatest command. One of the teachings of the time was this: “As someone might break all the commandments and thereby reject God’s yoke, breaking the Covenant and turning his face against the Law, equally is this so if someone breaks even one commandment.”

The Scribe in the Gospel is eager for Jesus to express his official opinion on what is the fundamental demand and the core of God’s Law. The Law was understood to mean divine revelation concerning the Covenant expectations in the life of God’s people. This means that the “greatest commandment” should express the ultimate content of God’s Law.

In his reply to the question, Jesus links together two teachings from the Old Testament, found in the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6, verse 5) and the Book of Leviticus (chapter 19, verse 18), regarding love of God and love of neighbor. There it is in a nutshell: submission to God and service of neighbor are what life is all about. We all find ourselves simultaneously before God and others. As such, love of God and the love of neighbor are equally urgent, but our love of God must inform and shape how we treat others.

When Jesus says that love of God is “the greatest and the first commandment,” he is saying that to love God is beyond all the other commandments, important though they be, and that loving God gives meaning to all the other commands of God.

In stating the importance of love of God, Jesus urges that it be done with all one’s heart, soul and mind. This means the whole person is to be engaged in the crucial work of love, considered the most important activity humans can undertake.

We know that the command of love of God and neighbor was at the center of Jesus’ personal life, and we are called to do likewise, following in his footsteps of the Master.

The demanding nature of the law of love is stressed in the final verse of the Gospel passage for this Sunday: “On these two commandments (love of God and neighbor) depends all the Law and the Prophets.” Both commandments are important and fundamental and at the heart of divine revelation. “Law and Prophets” does not mean a codified law, but the content of Sacred Scripture, where God’s will is revealed, namely, that all might be saved.

Jesus left a crucial last testament to his followers, to each of us: “Love one another as I have loved you.” We need look no further than the example and teaching of Christ to mold our outlook and activity day in and day out. Jesus is our mediator too in the work of going about doing good, which he is described as having done during his earthly sojourn.

In every celebration of the Eucharist (Mass), the words of the Gospel still ring true: that we not simply say “Lord, Lord,” but that we “do the will of the Father.” That is done best by loving God and loving others.

Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB