Gospel: Matthew 22:34-40

Love of God, Love of Neighbor

Have you ever had the overwhelming sense you were loved? How do you know you are loved?

"Love makes the world go 'round." In spite of the cynics from the board room to the court room to the news room, love does motivate people. Marriage and child bearing, vocation and ministry, all stem from love's self-giving and sense of sacrifice. Love indeed makes the world go around. For without love, the world would be a place of despair.

In the gospel, Jesus spoke of love as the highest principle in the Jewish Law. Love for God. And love for neighbor.

Popular Translation

Jesus argued about the resurrection of the dead with the Sadducees. 34 When the Pharisees heard Jesus won the argument, they went as a group to Jesus. 35 One of their experts on the Jewish Law tried to trick Jesus into saying something wrong. 36 "Teacher," the expert said, "What is the most important command in the Jewish Law?"

37 Jesus answered, "'Love God with all the feeling in your heart, with all the energy within you,' and with every thought in your mind. 38 This is the most important command. 39 The next in importance is just like it. 'Love everyone like you love yourself.'"

40 "The entire Bible depends on these two commands."

Literal Translation

In Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus debated the resurrection of the dead with the Sadducees (who denied this belief).

34 But, the Pharisees, having heard HE silenced the Sadducees, gathered together on the same ( . . . ) 35 And he posed a question, one of them, a scribe, pressuring HIM, 36 "Teacher, what command (is) great in the Law?" 37 The ONE said to him, "'You will love the Lord in your whole heart, and in your whole soul', and in your whole mind. 38 This is the great and first command. 39 The second, however, is like it. 'You will love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commands, the entire Law hangs and the prophets (hang)."

22:33b "on the same . . . " can refer to place or intention. In the prior case, "they gathered together at the same place (Jesus taught to debate with him)." In the latter case, "they gathered together with the same intention (to go and debate with Jesus)."

22:35 "pressuring HIM" means to test or trap Jesus with a question into making a mistake. "HIM" acts as the object of the sentence ("asked") and the clause ("pressured").

22:36 The verb "is" was added in parentheses; Greek does not need the verb to make sense. "...command . . . great . . . " The word "great" does not mean "better," but "ultimate" or "the only one (that matters)"; the superlative "greatest" best conveys the meaning of the word.

22:37 Deuteronomy 6:5

22:38 The word "first" means "most important"; the addition of "first" to "great" is only for emphasis since they mean the same thing.

22:39 Leviticus 19:18

22:40 "hangs on" is the verb for two subjects in the sentence: "Law" and "prophets"; the phrase "Law and prophets" refers to the Bible (i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures).

In order to trap Jesus, the Pharisees propose a simple question that cut to heart of his biblical interpretation. What is the most important command in the Torah (or Jewish Law, the first five books of the Bible)? This single phrase was the starting point of Jesus religious and world view. Through that lens, they could understand his logic and draw lines to his conclusions. Then, they could attack him with other questions that could embarrass him. [22:34-35]

The question itself was a popular one. According to John Pilch in his book "The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A' (Collegeville, MI, Liturgical Press, 1995, pp 154-155), Israelites, even the biblical authors, tried to reduce the Law into guiding precepts. Psalm 15 had eleven. Isaiah 33:15 had six. Micah 6:8 had three. And Amos 5:4 had one. From a starting point, one could weigh various commands as serious or not. [22:36]

Jesus answered the question with two commands: Deuteronomy 6:5 (the "Shema") and Leviticus 19:18. Deuteronomy 6:4-6 has defined the faith of the Jews for more than two millennium.

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart." (Revised Standard Version)

These verses stress the unity of God (monotheism) and the response of the believer: love for the Creator. Israel based its belief in one God upon freedom. Unlike their neighbors' fertility gods who were guided by seasonal forces of nature, Yahweh was so radically free, even nature could not control him. That freedom made him all-powerful, alive, and ultimately unique among the other notions of the divine. He showed himself almighty through events of his people's history. He freely chose to save a people. He freely chose to make a covenant with them.

The covenants God offered revealed not only his freedom. They showed his loving concern. To Abraham he offered land and descendants. Through his messenger, Moses, he offered a divine law and nationhood to the wandering Israelites. To King David, he offered a perpetual throne for his descendants. In every case, Abraham, the Israelites, or David could not offer anything in return. God bestowed the covenant as a free gift. And once, God made a covenant, he remained faithful to them in his own way.

What could one offer God in return for his free choice, his love, and his faithfulness? He or she could mirror those qualities back to God. In other words, Israel and her kings could hold fast to the Law God offered. Believers could freely choose to "covenant" with the Lord and live out that choice.

Within the context of covenant, the word "love" took on a much fuller sense. God's love meant his concern for his people. Love for God meant a duty of fidelity to Yahweh. So, the focus of love lay more upon duty and action than emotion or romantic ideals. When God loved his people, he showed his power in events recorded in Scripture. When one loved God, he or she lived out the covenant delineated in the Torah.

As God loved his people, his people should love each other. If love for God meant faithful adherence to his covenant, love for neighbor meant acts of charity. As the center of the Torah, Leviticus 19:18 made that point explicit. Leviticus 19 was called the Holiness Codes, for the name of God is invoked many more times in this chapter than in any other book in the Bible. At the very center of the commands laced with the holy name, stood one simple command, "Love your neighbor as yourself." One rabbi remarked that the Holiness Codes of Leviticus 19 were the mountain top of the Torah. The command to love one's neighbor would be the peak of the top. Love of neighbor (i.e., fellow Israelites), then, was intricately interwoven into the love of God. For the Israelite, an act of charity was an act equal to that of worship. No wonder Jesus could state Leviticus 19:18 was like Deuteronomy 6:5! [22:37-39]

Indeed, when one acts charitably to those in need, one demonstrates love for God. Without charity, worship, scripture study, and prayer become hollow. And, the covenant loses it force. The Bible that recorded the faith life of God's people does hang on the precepts of love. [22:40]

Jesus' answer was conservative and orthodox by the standards of the Pharisees. Lifestyle drew the difference between Jesus and his opponents, however. The Pharisees discussed love as the key for interpretation. Jesus lived out that love. His concern for the poor, the outcast, and the sinner mirrored God's loving concern for his people. The example of Jesus must have stung his opponents deeply. Jesus lived out the Law about which the Pharisees only speculated.

Catechism Theme: The Ten Commandments (CCC 2083 & 2196)

The Great Commandment encapsulates the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Love of God means putting him first, respecting his name, and keeping his day. Love of neighbor means respect for others, their relationships, their reputations, and their property. Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 indicate love in action.

To love God means a dedication of the entire person to his will. Placing him first in the mind and the heart. Speaking respectfully about him. And keeping his day as one of prayer and true recreation, a day to keep his Law. To love neighbor as ourselves means looking at and treating others with the respect God gave them. This love begins at home with one's parents. It then extends to others.

We must always remember that the spirit of the Law demands far more what is written. Love of God lives every waking moment of the day. Love of neighbor extends beyond our family and friends to strangers, especially to the poor, the sick, and the sinner. Love of neighbor knows no national borders or class distinctions or barriers of any kind, because God knows no such impediments.

How can you show God your love? Has the success of such efforts inspired you? Or, has the failure of such discouraged you? How has God's love for you helped you to act charitably toward others?

Love of God. Love of neighbor. Easy to talk about. Difficult to live out. In spite of the effort, love of each in action will change us and our surroundings. Fidelity to God and charity toward others will challenge others to action. All we need to do is live like Jesus did. If we can't make that commitment, then we should take one step at a time toward our creator and our fellow human. And we should not worry, for God's Spirit will lead the way.

Write down the ways you showed love for God and others this past week. Thank God for your efforts and give him the credit. Then, plan for this week. Pray for wisdom making out your list. And pray for patience when those opportunities for love surprise you.