THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 57
If there were a soundtrack for today’s gospel passage, one might hear the hauntingly familiar melody of the Beatles’ 1967 hit “All You Need Is Love” being sung softly behind the teaching of Jesus: “All you need is love, all you need is love, all you need is love, love, love is all you need.”
While the suggestion of distilling the gospel message down to something as simple as love frightens modern day Scribes and Pharisees, it is exactly what Jesus does in today’s gospel. In response to the request of a Scribe to identify “the first of all the commandments,” Jesus does not directly answer his question. Perhaps Jesus knew that to highlight one commandment over all the others would be to encourage a minimalist approach to doing God’s will – “I don’t kill, so I’m a good person”; “I have not committed adultery, so I’m good.” Whatever His reasons, Jesus took several teachings that would be familiar to the good Jew and connected them to be the greatest of all commandments.
Our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy presents to us the Shema Yisrael, a prayer which good Jews recite several times a day: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” This prayer would have been familiar to Jesus, and it is easy to understand why Jesus would use it as part of His response to the Scribe. What was peculiarly unique was for Jesus to connect the Shema from Deuteronomy with the teaching from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” By making these two commandments interdependent Jesus presents the Scribe with what was surely recognized as a novel teaching. Further, he makes the challenge of loving God far more complicated than a good Jew could ever have imagined.
The Scribe in today’s gospel was no doubt at the Temple to make his customary sacrifice. That sacrifice demonstrated the religious commitment of the Scribe. It was the way a good Jew would worship. Along with the following of the Ten Commandments and the adherence to the 613 precepts of the Law, the Scribe could prove that he truly loved God with his “heart, soul, and strength.” At least that is what the Scribe thought before Jesus entwined the love of God with the love of neighbor.
Jesus takes two precepts of the Jewish Law and connects them, creating one commandment. In doing this, Jesus tells the Scribe, and us, that true religion demands that our love of God be manifested in our love of neighbor. Further, the Scribe’s neighbor is not only the fellow Mosaic-law-abiding Jew. All people, even those who might be thought of as enemies, are meant to receive the neighborly affection that flows from an understanding of how much love God has lavished on us. Jesus is telling the Scribe what John in his first letter proclaims so beautifully: “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1Jn 3:18). John goes on to say that “if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1Jn 4:20). The comment by the Scribe in the gospel that the love of God and neighbor is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” seems to suggest that he gets the point, unlike the Scribes Jesus will rail against in next Sunday’s gospel.
Jesus seriously complicated the Scribe’s understanding of what it means to love God. Love of God was easier when it could be measured by a trip to the Temple and a simple sacrifice. The true love of God involves more than reciting prayers, attending Mass, or even keeping the commandments. The love of God goes beyond feelings to deeds, to actual actions that manifest our love for our brothers and sisters, especially those in need. If we truly want to know how complicated and challenging love is then all we have to consider is our stance on immigration or the caravan, or weigh our love for Muslims, or assess our forgiveness of those who wrong us or who might appear to be our enemies. If love seems to us to be simple, then perhaps we are not loving the way Jesus would have us love.
Jesus was not telling the Scribe that Temple sacrifices, the praying of psalms, or abiding by the precepts of the Law, were useless. Rather, He was highlighting what was most important, highlighting the greatest commandment. The reading of Scripture, the celebration of the sacraments, the personal prayers, are all important, for they strengthen our friendship with God. If we are going to love God with all “our heart, soul, and strength,” then we need to get to know God, and that can only be done by spending time with God in prayer, listening to God speak through his Word, and giving praise to God in ritual. The Scribes and the Pharisees are chastised in the Scriptures by Jesus because their friendship with God did not cause them to see their brothers and sisters in need. They did not understand that the love of God and the love of neighbor can never be separated.
Let us pray for the courage and the strength to genuinely love the way God loves. Let us recognize the challenge of loving like God, and let us understand that our love for God manifests itself in a genuine love of all men and women, especially those who find themselves in need. The Beatles were right back in 1967: “All you need is love, all you need is love, all you need is love, love, love is all you need.”