by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Teacher, which commandment of the Law is the greatest?” Jesus said: “You must 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 resembles it: you must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.” Matthew 22: 34-40
I find coming to grips with today’s gospel-reading something of a challenge, mainly because the word “love” has been so bandied about in contemporary society as to become almost meaningless. Before sunrise today, a well-known radio announcer reminded those of us listening to him that today was the one hundredth anniversary of the marketing of Vegemite – a black, salty yeast bi-product that has found its way into almost every Australian household. That announcement led to a spate of callers phoning in to tell of their passion and love for a product that has been part of their diet for as long as they can remember. There’s almost nothing or nobody we don’t love. Some attest to loving the “Matildas”, Australia’s female football team. There are those who love cricket, others who love movies and others who profess to love dark chocolate. There’s almost nothing or nobody not loved by one or other of us. Then there is a sprinkling of extremist fanatics who, out of “love” for God decide to maim or murder those whom they designate as infidels.
The Austrian-born, Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, famous for his philosophy of dialogue, noted that we are essentially relational beings, who are realised only in love. Some seventy years ago Buber wrote: “Love is a responsibility of an I for a thou. Because of that, we human beings can be effective in helping, healing, educating, raising-up and saving fellow human beings.” Buber had come to realise the power of selfless love that could lead us to put the needs of others ahead of our own. That’s the kind of love about which Jesus spoke in the gospel-reading of this thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The lawyer who confronted Jesus first tried to flatter him with the title “Teacher”. Then, by asking him for an opinion on what was the greatest commandment, he was hoping that Jesus would say something with which he might find fault. Despite that, there was still something legitimate about his question. Its legitimacy lay in the fact that rabbis and scholars of Jesus’ time had to adjudicate on more than 600 torah commandments. A lot of their time was spent discussing with one another as to which of those commandments were to be given priority. Having to give priority to some commandments over others understandably led to disputes, controversy, and criticism of one teacher against another.
Jesus cleverly answered the lawyer not by choosing one commandment over any of the others, but by directing his attention to the moral principles underpinning the application of all the commandments. Jesus identified as the greatest commandment the verses from the Book of Deuteronomy (6: 4-9) that are the very essence of the prayer that Jewish people prayed every day and have continued to pray right up to this present day. It is the prayer called the Shema, which is still affixed to the doorpost of every Jewish dwelling, inside what is called the mezuza. That prayer reads: “Listen, Israel! God, our God, is the one and only God. You shall love God, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let these words which I urge on you today be written on your heart. You shall repeat them to your children and say them over to them whether at rest in your house or walking abroad, at your lying down or your rising; you shall fasten them on your hand as a sign and on your forehead as a circlet; you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The script of this prayer contained in the mezuza is traditionally done by a professional calligrapher. Jesus then added a second commandment which he drew from the Book of Leviticus, noting that it was inseparable from the first and adding that, together, the commandments to love God with one’s whole being and to love one’s neighbour as oneself articulated the essence of the message he had brought to the world.
In taking these two commandments together, Jesus implied that the love and compassion with which God reaches out to us are to be reflected in the love and compassion which we, in turn, extend to every person we encounter.
Today’s first reading from Exodus challenges us by enumerating the less than acceptable practices we can slip into using in our dealing with neighbours who upset us: We can discriminate against foreigners, rob widows, defraud orphans, take advantage of the poor and cheat needy people to whom we give loans. These practices are put to our consideration not as a prompt for examining our conscience, but simply as an invitation to reflect on how we would feel if others were to do those things to us. Feeling sorry for ourselves would very likely help us to see how others would feel if we were to treat them insensitively or abuse their trust. If we were to feel hurt by those who might treat us with little or no respect, or to be slighted and insulted by attempts of others to take advantage of us, then we might begin to appreciate how others would feel if we were to visit injustice and disrespect on them.
First and foremost, however, for any or all of this to become real in our lives, we need to have healthy self-esteem. We have to be convinced that God really does find us loveable; that there is something good and worthwhile about us. Unless and until we are convinced that God really does love us deeply and unconditionally, we will not be able to treat those around us with compassion, acceptance, tolerance and encouragement. Perhaps we might give some attention to shaping a metaphorical mezuza containing the reminder: “I know for certain that my God really does love me.”
Buoyed by that conviction, we might come to appreciate the aspiration of the song from Lloyd-Webber’s musical Aspects of Love: “Love changes everything.”
In his first letter to the Christian community of Corinth, Paul made it clear that selfless love, the kind of love that will change everything, comes at a cost:
“Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offence and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. Love does not come to an end.” (Corinthians 13: 4-8)
Developing that kind of love is a bit more than taking a walk in the park!