31st SUNDAY OF YEAR B
Deut 6:2-6; Heb 7:23-28; Mark 12-28-34
LOVE OF GOD AND LOVE OF NEIGBHOUR
Today, the first reading and the gospel both refer to the commandments. The first reading contains a command in the Book of Deuteronomy, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In our gospel, one of the scribes asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replies, quoting the first reading together with another text from the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God…. And the second is you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. The scribe certainly had a reason for this kind of question to Jesus.
- THE LAWS OF GOD FOR THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL
In Israel, at the time of Jesus, the Jewish scholars of the Law had extracted many commandments from Scriptures: as many as 613 of them, drawn from the Old Testament. Because the demands of one law often conflicted with those of another, Jewish moralists tried to work out a synthesis of the essentials of the Law. This helped them to know which laws should enjoy the priority in cases of conflicting demands. For instance, the prophet Micah, summarized the Law in these words: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8). So when the scribe asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mk 12:28), he is not simply asking for the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God … you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2-3). Rather, he is asking for Jesus’s own synthesis of the laws and commandments of God. In today’s gospel, the scribe is presented not as trying to test Jesus, unlike the one in Matthew’s gospel (Mtt 22:35), but as truly willing to learn. Probably, he was overwhelmed with the conflict he saw in his own life as he tried to meet the various demands of the commandments.
His final answer to Jesus: ““Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mk 12:32-33), suggests that he was probably experiencing conflict between the need to love the people in his life and the need to fulfill all the demands of Temple worship. Jesus resolved his problem by assuring him that practical love for God and neighbour comes before the need for ritual observances and worship.
- JESUS’ RESPONSE
In response to the scribe, as earlier said, Jesus cites two Biblical passages and joins them in order to form the two faces of one supreme commandment of love. For Jesus, these two dimensions together constitute what it means to be an authentic Christian. The first is the famous “Shema Israel” (Deut 6:4-5) as it is read in our First Reading of today, which invites Israel to a joyful union with and total love of God. The second is from the Book of Leviticus which invites a person to love his neighbour as himself (Lev 19:18).
These two commandments are like the two beams that make up a Christian cross. One points upward, as it were, indicating our relationship with God (the vertical) and the other points sideward, to our relationship with one another (the horizontal). The first one is the vertical dimension of the commandment of love. In view of this dimension, there are people who overstress their love for God. They want to shut other people out of their lives. They want to live for God alone and spend their day praying and meditating. Such people may complain that by attending to people, they are being disturbed and kept away from God. If asked for help, such people simply: “I will pray for you.” This is an extreme of the vertical dimension of the commandment of Jesus. Next, there is the horizontal dimension of the commandment. Just like the commandment of loving God, there are also people who do just the opposite. They are totally involved in helping people: the sick, the rascals, the poor, the drug addict, the people with problems, etc. They work all day and half the night. They are so busy that they have no time to pray. They say: “My work is my prayer.” True indeed; but that also is an extreme.
Jesus fixes love as the most fundamental commandment. In the words of St. Paul: “There are three things that last: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love,” (1Cor 13:13). But Jesus further teaches us that love can be expressed in love of God, love of neighbour, and love of oneself. He teaches us that the commandment to love must start with love of God first, love of neighbour second, and love of self only last. For Jesus there can be no true love of God unless it expresses itself in love of one’s neighbour. St. John in his letter puts it thus: “If anyone says ‘I love God’ but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1Jn 4:20). How can we apply this new commandment of love in our lives?
- PRACTICAL LOVE
When we think about love, we tend to think 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. Normally, we 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. If we make the most important commandment the goal of our lives, it would revolutionize us and it would have a ripple effect on those around us. We would be content to let God fight our battles; we would be confident he can rebuild what is broken in our lives; we would sleep without worry; we would tell others about him regularly because we would be quick to brag about him; we would turn to him with our needs because we know that there is no better place to turn; we would reach out to others, confident that God would use us for good in their lives, etc. These are signs that we are working on loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
At the horizontal level, Jesus makes clear that a true love for God will impact our love for others. We cannot truly love God if we do not love those whom he loves. He further emphasizes that you “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mk 12:40). The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments. Jesus simply mean that we should attend to our neighbour’s good as we do to our own. As we fuss over our cuts and blemishes, over hurts and pains, so we should fuss over our neighbour’s. It is not about caring for ourselves more. It is about caring for others in the same way we care about ourselves. It is about giving priority to the needs of others; giving them the benefit of the doubt; extending forgiveness, grace, and mercy. It means that we try to love others as the Lord has loved us.
To truly love others, you must first see their value. We need to see the image of God in the people around us. We must get it through our head (so it will eventually impact our emotions): each person is valuable in God’s sight. We start the process of love when we look for the treasure in others. We may have to dig for it, but it is there. When we focus on the value rather than the weaknesses, we have begun to love.
Furthermore, we need to be alert for pain. There is pain in every person’s life. When we see someone’s pain and then stand with them in that pain, we show a love that will not quickly be forgotten. The love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely, this is compassion; and it touches the heart of the world. To love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, this is true love!
And then there is the love for the enemy—love for the one who does not love us but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. When we can love even those who have hurt us, we begin to love as God has loved. It is easy to forget that we have rebelled against our good God. By all rights he should send us away. But, he still loves us. When we see the true 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; we are loving like God does.
In the person and life of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the lives of countless other saints of God, we can see practical examples of what it means to love God and love neighbour. We pray that God may grant us the grace to love him and our neighbour as Jesus teaches.