Let me ask you a simple question. If a very intelligent man with a reputation as one of the greatest teachers on the face of the earth made a statement like, “I am about to tell you what I think is the secret of life,” most of us would perk our ears up and take notice, right? Well, in today’s gospel, the very Son of God–the man who will decide whether or not you will go to heaven–tells us what the two greatest commandments in the Old Testament are. Today, the Lord gives us the two well-known commandments of love. I wonder how much we have really thought about these, or considered what they mean?
As the first commandment, Jesus responds with the same thing that Moses tells the people in Deuteronomy, which you heard in the first reading: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Entire books have been written on what this means. Let us glance over it briefly and say that the first commandment is for us to marshall all of our thoughts, our intentions, our actions, our feelings, hopes and dreams and direct them to the Lord our God. Pretty radical, isn’t it? The FIRST OBSERVATION that I would like to make is that when Jesus is asked what the absolutely primary commandment is, he answers with the maximum rather than the minimum. Many of us try to look for the easiest way out — when I was growing up, I often would try to do the fewest chores possible before my mother got angry, or the littlest homework possible to make a decent grade. That is what we call the “bare minimum.” The lowest common denominator. Jesus immediately ramps up the requirements for us to be a true follower of God. He’s got to have it all, and have it to the maximum.
Then, Jesus responds with another addition that he was not asked for by the young man who asked him a question. Jesus adds a commandment. All the scribe asked him was what was the greatest commandment? He didn’t ask Jesus, “What are the two greatest commandments?” But apparently Jesus thought it was important to add a second one.
Jesus says, “The second commandment is like the first. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus specifically says that the second commandment is like the first one. But what does loving your neighbor have to do with loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? The reason Jesus adds this second commandment is to combat those people who think that holiness is all about prayer to a God who is in Heaven while ignoring the suffering and need of their brothers and sisters who are right there with them on our dirty earth. Think about it this way.
We are commanded to love God above all things.
But all men and women are made in the image and likeness of God.
Therefore, you cannot say you love God unless you also love the men and
women who are made in his image and likeness.
That’s just pure logic, people. Unavoidable, unassailable, and real. THE SECOND OBSERVATION IS THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE IN GOD’S JUDGMENT TO LOVE HIM WITHOUT ALSO LOVING OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS.
THE THIRD OBSERVATION IS THIS: When Jesus answers what the two greatest commandments are, he answers with commandments already found in the Old Testament. Isn’t that interesting? For those of you who think that the God of the Old Testament is angry and vengeful and the God of the New Testament is all about being a nice guy, you can put that in your pipe and smoke it. These commandments about the outpouring of love are already present in that so-called “angry Old Testament.”
THE FOURTH OBSERVATION IS THIS: When Jesus answers the scribe about the greatest commandment, he does not answer with one of the Ten commandments. Did you notice that? I mean, Jesus is a good Jew, but he glances right over Ten Commandments of Moses. But like I said, both of the commandments that he gives are found in the Old Testament. Jesus gives us Two Commandments that make all the other commandments obsolete. Think about it this way. If you are raising a child or teaching a class, which child or class really need the set of rules — the good one or the bad one? If you have a model child who naturally loves God and his brothers and sisters, that child does not need a set of rules. The set of rules is meant for the unruly ones, not the ones who already have the rule of love in their hearts. That is why Jesus does not answer with one of the Ten Commandments. He is trying to get to the Heart of the Law, and the Heart of the Law is that outpouring of love that makes all other laws unnecessary, because you do what you are supposed to do without being asked.
But let’s pause here. There is another observation that I would like to make that should be obvious, but because it is obvious it can sometimes be missed — the FIFTH OBSERVATION is that both of the commandments depend on LOVE. Isn’t that something? But what is love that we might understand what Jesus is asking us to do? That is also a massive question. I have written a 400 page textbook on the meaning of love in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, but I will spare you the several hundred hours that it would take to explain all of it so that you will not stone me where I stand. Let us suffice it to say that love is a striving after something that we consider good. The million dollar question is, “What do you consider good that you are striving after it?” The commandments that Jesus gives us are about priorities. God must have first priority, and after that, serving your neighbor must have second priority, and the two should be joined together. Success is good, but does striving after that have priority over these first two? Relationships are good, but does striving after that have priority over these first two? There are a million things that we can strive after that are good, but when we make striving after a lesser good more important than striving after a greater good, then we actually do something evil and wrong. Surprise! We should consider today what those things are.
The other aspect of love that should be considered is that there are essentially only two ways we can love something. We can love something because we NEED something or we can love something because we have something to GIVE. C.S. Lewis calls these, unsurprisingly, gift-loves and need-loves. If I really want a relationship, for example, I can love that relationship because I have a hole in my heart and I want to desperately shove that person in that hole in order to make myself complete (which is a need-love), or I can love that relationship because I love the other person so much that I want to give myself to them as a gift. We love either because we need or we love because we give — one or the other, and often both of them simultaneously. What are most of your loves? Are they need-loves or gift-loves? Because I guarantee you that the kind of love God calls us to is gift-love — that unselfish love that thinks of the good of the other before the good of the self.
The final observation that I would like to make is that these two are not the only commandments of love that Jesus gave us. As I mentioned, both of these commandments are from the Old Testament. But if that was all we needed, then we wouldn’t need the New Testament, would we? So what do we learn in the New Testament that we don’t know in the old?
On the night Jesus was betrayed he said, “I give you a new commandment — love one another as I have loved you.” Should we be surprised that this new commandment is all about love, just like the other two? Jesus is in full continuity with fulfilling the Old Testament. But we do see something new here. I will try to illustrate this by asking you a question. If I, Fr. Basil Burns, told you to “love one another as I have loved you,” what would you have to know in order to fulfill that commandment? You would first have to know who I am and how I have loved. AND SO MY SIXTH OBSERVATION IS THIS: FULFILLING JESUS’S COMMAND DEPENDS COMPLETELY UPON YOU KNOWING WHO JESUS IS AND WHAT HE HAS DONE. If you do not know that, then the commandment is essentially worthless to you, isn’t it? It’s just words without meaning. That is why we must through study, prayer and action learn as much as we can about Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, because if we do not know him, then we cannot fulfill his command to love as he has loved.
My friends, love is essentially about what you reach out to in your need and what you give yourself to when you have an abundance to give. What do you need? What do you give yourself to? Because in answering those questions, you also answer who and what you love. Will those loves get you to heaven?
C.S. Lewis once wrote the following:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable and irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
Love is anything but safe, my friends. But it is the training ground for heaven, and it is a command of our God. May we learn to love well. But, like dancing or singing or any other art, we can only learn it well by actually taking the risk to go out and do it. And it is in taking those risks that we will finally win our salvation.