Which is the greatest of the commandments?
Many of us raised in the Catholic tradition can answer this: “to love our neighbor as ourselves.” Even if we are not familiar with this week’s Gospel from Mark (Mark 12:28-34), then at least we know that the Golden Rule, as it is called, is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. We may be so familiar with this idea of loving the neighbor that it loses its radical edge. This week’s gospel is worth a fresh look, if for no other reason than to reinvigorate our desire to live the love commanded by Jesus.
The gospel reading opens with a teacher of the law asking Jesus a trick question: “Which is the greatest of the commandments?” This teacher of the law would have been an adherent of Judaism and someone who knew well the 613 commandments that make up the Law of Moses as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, his job likely would have been to help everyday people figure out how to remain faithful to the Mosaic law, no small task when there were so many laws to follow. But to these teachers of the law, all of the commandments were important, as it was in living out these commandments that a person showed their love for God and their Jewish identity. This is what makes it a trick question.
While we know what Jesus says second, we often forget the first answer Jesus gives: “Hear O Israel! The Lord your God is Lord alone. Therefore, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Here Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5, a prayer that would have been familiar to all of his Jewish audience. These verses are known as the Shema, and observant Jews were required to pray the Shema upon waking and before sleeping at night.
This week try praying the Shema when you wake up and before you go to bed. Does beginning and ending your day by reminding yourself to love God with everything you have make a difference in how you understand yourself and how you act in the world?
Why is it important that this is how Jesus starts his answer? First, it demonstrates how steeped Jesus was in his Jewish heritage and serves as a good reminder to Christians that Christianity arises out of Judaism and shares with Judaism this basic commandment to love God above all else. If nothing else, this should help us condemn anti-Semitism, that is, prejudice against Jews, as antithetical to Christianity.
Second, knowing that this command–to love God alone with all that we are and all that we have–comes before the Golden Rule helps us see the Golden Rule in a new light. The command to love our neighbor as ourselves is not a duty, something we have to do because Jesus told us to do it. Rather, our love of neighbor flows out of our love of God and the experience of God’s love for us in return. Think of the image of an overflowing cup. Filled up as we are with God’s love, this love runs over because God’s love is so abundant. Loving is not a duty but rather something we want to do, even can’t help but do, because we want to pass on God’s love to others.
Further, the commandment to love God and to love neighbor become connected here, so that it is by loving our neighbor that we demonstrate our love for God. We do not show the integrity of our faith by following 613 laws, but rather by living out the love that God has for us in relation to all the people in the world. And because love of God and love of neighbor are linked, we can be confident that God passes near us when we reach out to others in love and when they reach out to us in return.
When have you felt the love of God in the love of the people in your life?
What can you do this week to demonstrate your love for God by loving a neighbor in need?