JESUS’ “OWN” COMMANDMENT
Ex 22:2-26; I Thes 1:5-10; Matt 22:34-40
At the time of Jesus, Jewish Law had greatly expanded from the original Ten Commandments. One writer says that there were 613 actual laws as well as 365 prohibitions (one for every day in the year) and 268 prescriptions (one for every bone in the human body). Obviously not all these rules and regulations were of equal weight and the rabbis constantly disputed which of them were more important than the others. This tells us where the question of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel comes from: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”. The purpose of the question is not to find the answer but, as we are told, to disconcert Jesus. They want to find something which they can use against him. In this and in the previous few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, extracts of which we have read over the last few weeks, the Pharisees have been trying hard to catch Jesus out. They have put questions to him like the one of last week on whether taxes can be paid to Caesar or not. By now, they are a bit exasperated and are running out of things to ask him, so they pose this question about which is the greatest commandment.
- THE PLAN TO RIDICULE JESUS
The Pharisees hoped to ridicule Jesus as one lacking the knowledge to lead others. It is worthy to note that these Pharisees sent an EXPERT in the Law to debate with Jesus. But he completely unravels the scholar with an answer as simple as it is profound. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 (known as the Shema). It was a statement that every devoted Jew repeated daily. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus does not stop at this most important commandment. He also gives the scholar the second most important commandment which is found in Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” By this response, Jesus turns their mal-intended question into an opportunity to teach his audience and us about genuine LOVE.
- JESUS’ “OWN” COMMANDMENT
The Pharisees ask for ONE commandment and Jesus gives them TWO, based on the Old Testament texts cited above. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:27-39). He does not place the first above the second but says that the second is like the first. What is interesting is his follow-up statement that “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matt 22:40), in other words, the whole body of Jewish teaching. From this remarkable statement we see that the Jewish religion is not supposed to be based on rules and regulations only, as the Pharisees would have the people believe, but on love.
By adding the words “as yourself,” Jesus puts his interrogators and us in front of a mirror before which we cannot lie. He gives us an infallible measure for determining whether we love our neighbour or not. Jesus considers love of neighbour as “HIS COMMANDMENT“. It is that which summarizes the whole Law. In John’s Gospel, Jesus underlines the fact that the commandment is his own innovation. “This is my commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In fact, many theologians identify the whole of Christianity with the precept of love of neighbour; and they are not completely wrong. We must try, however, to go a little beyond the surface of things. When we speak of love of neighbour, our minds turn immediately to “works” of charity, to the things that should be done for our neighbour: such as giving him/her something to eat and drink, visiting him/her, in short, helping our neighbour. But this is ONLY AN EFFECT OF LOVE; it is not yet love. Before “BENEFICENCE” (Latin: “bene-facere”: doing good, acts of goodness), there is “BENEVOLENCE“, (being kind, pure kindness in itself). This simply means that before DOING good, there is WILLING good.
Charity must be “without pretense”. In other words, it must be sincere (literally, “without hypocrisy”, (Latin: “sine cere” – without wax or impurity). St. Paul spells out this aspect of the purity of love: “Let love be genuine” (Rom 12:9); you must love “from a true heart” (1 Pet 1:22). Indeed, you can do “charitable” acts and give alms for motives that do not have anything to do with love. One can do such acts in order to impress, to look like a do-gooder, to earn heaven, to ease one’s conscience, etc. A great deal of the charity that we offer to the needy, sometimes, is not directed by love but by a desire to ease our consciences. Because we can realize the scandalous difference between them and us, we feel somewhat responsible for their misery. One can lack charity even in “doing charity”!
Definitely, one would be in an enormous and dangerous error to oppose the heart’s love and active charity, or to take refuge in good intentions toward others in such a way that we use them as an excuse for a lack of active and concrete charity on our part. For instance, if you meet a poor person, hungry and numb with cold, St. James says, what good does it do to say “You poor thing, go, keep warm and eat something!” when you give him nothing of what he needs? “Children,” St. John adds, “let us not love in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 3:18). This is not a matter of devaluing external works of charity, but of making sure that they have their basis in a genuine sentiment of love and benevolence. There is a big difference between external works of charity and charity of the heart.
- CHARITY OF THE HEART
Interior charity, or charity of the heart, is charity that can be exercised by ALL and ALWAYS; it is universal. It is not a charity that is reserved only to a few, for instance a charity of the rich and the healthy delivering handouts to others such as the poor, the destitute, the sick, etc. It is not the charity that reduces some people to silent recipients of handouts. No! The charity of the heart can be practiced by all. Everyone can give and can receive. Furthermore, this kind of charity is very concrete. It is a matter of beginning to look with a new eye upon the situations in which, and people with whom, we live. What is this new eye? It is simple: it is the eye with which we would like God to look upon us! It is the eye of mercy, of benevolence, of understanding, of kindness.
When this happens, all our relationships change. As if by a miracle, all the prejudice and hostility that kept us from loving a certain person fall away and we begin to open up to what he/she is in reality: a poor human being who suffers from his/her weaknesses and limits, like you, like everyone. It is as if the mask that people and things placed over that person’s face has begun to slip and the person appears to us as he/she truly is.
- TO LOVE IS A DECISION
When we think about love, we are usually talking about feelings or emotions. Maybe that would be the equivalent of “heart” love. However, when we add SOUL and MIND, we are reminded that love is also a decision. We certainly do not FEEL like loving our enemy, but we can CHOOSE to do so. We may not love God fully but we can choose to do so. We can also CHOOSE to love those whom we think do not merit our love, that is, those who hate us, our enemies. If we made this most important commandment the goal of our lives, it would revolutionize us and it would have a ripple effect on those around us—in our marriages, in the family, in the church, in our places of work, in fact, everywhere.
- LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOURSELF IN THE CONCRET
If we are honest, we would acknowledge that quite often the “loving acts” that we do to others are self-serving. They are loaded. For these acts, we always have tendency to hope (or plan) to get something in return. And if we do not benefit from the acts, what we called “love” turns quickly into bitterness or hatred. When we give in order to get, we are not really giving at all; we are negotiating or worse, manipulating. To truly love others, we must:
- a) See their value. We need to see the image of God in the people around us. When we focus on the value rather than the weaknesses, then we have begun to love.
- b) We need to be alert for pain, to the pain of around us. There is pain in every life. When you see someone’s pain and then stand with him/her in that pain, then we are showing a love that will not quickly be forgotten. Let us look at some examples from some biblical texts:
- Today’s 1st Reading (Ex 22:2-26). (You may need to read it out to the hearing of all!) Feel the pains of those who are hurting: the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, the internally displaced, the unjustly arrested and detained, etc.!
- The story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) – a story of selfless love.
- Mtt 25 – Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive, burying the dead!
- c) The kind of love Jesus commands is a love that GOES BEYOND BARRIERS. Such a love leads us to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, to love those who are rich while we are poor; that is saintly! And then there is also the LOVE FOR THE ENEMY—love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. This is like the tortured person’s love for the torturer: this is God’s love. Such love conquers the world. Such love builds bridges not barriers. Jesus showed such a love even to those who were killing him: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” Lk 23:34).
This kind of love is far removed from the legalistic type of love that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law harboured and taught the people to memorize and practice. Jesus ushers in a new kind of understanding of LOVE, HIS OWN COMMANDMENT; and the question and intrigue of the Pharisees gives him that opportunity and the possibility to put forward this enlightenment.
When we can love even those who have hurt us, we begin to love as God has loved and continues to love us. It is easy to forget that we have rebelled and sinned against our Holy God. By all rights he should send us away. He should cast us off as his children. But God does not. THE PROPER MOTIVATION FOR LOVING OTHERS SHOULD BE OUR GRATITUDE TO GOD FOR LOVING US. This is why it is important to face our sinful nature squarely. When we see the depth of our sin, we are set free to understand and appreciate God’s mercy and grace. When we treat each other with that same kind of love; when we see the potential rather than the pain; when we give the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming the worst possible motives; then we are loving like God does.
This kind of love that Jesus teaches today is very well-articulated by a 20th Century non-Christian creative artist from Bengal, India. He is called RABINDRANATH TAGORE (A poet, short-story writer, song composer, playwright, and painter):
Go not to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the fragrance of love and kindness.
Go not to the temple to light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin, pride and ego, from you heart…
Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer,
First learn how to bow humbly before your fellowmen,
And apologize to those you have wronged.
Go not to the temple to pray on bended knees.
First bend down to lift someone who is down-trodden,
And strengthen the young ones. Not crush them.
Go not to the temple to ask for forgiveness for your sins,
First forgive from your heart those who have hurt you! Rabindranath Tagore
Let us pray:
Lord, our God, grant us the graces that we may love genuinely as you have loved us, and continue to love us! Amen!