In today’s Gospel passage Jesus answers a question posed to him by a scribe: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Now, the scribes were the lawyers in Jesus’ day. They wrote up the legal documents for mortgages, loans, divorces and marriages as well as being editors, teachers and experts in the interpretation of the law. Often enough ultraconservative scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus with questions concerning the law hoping to catch him in an unorthodox interpretation. But on this occasion the scribe seemed to be sincere in his question.
Jesus answered him by quoting Deuteronomy: 6:5, our first reading in today’s liturgy. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He then added a second commandment to it. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18.
It’s interesting that just a few weeks ago we read the account of a man who ran up to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and asked the question, “What must I do to attain eternal life?” Jesus’ answer was direct and simple. Follow the commandments! “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” Exodus 20:12-17.
Jesus’ two answers come from the law but are quite different. The reference from Exodus is a legal, civil law: don’t, don’t and don’t. His referencing verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus are a call to act, to love God and neighbor.
I see two different approaches to the commandments here. One approach is related to the rule of law necessary to maintain a civilized society. It’s against the law to steal, or defraud, and if we do, we’ll be punished for breaking these basic laws. The other approach is spiritual in nature. Love of God and neighbor is essential for each of us and society to enjoy life in a deeper way, a way that mirrors the harmony of God’s creation. Both approaches are important for creating and maintaining a civilized society and for the individual to grow in holiness – God-like virtues. However, Jesus took a tremendous step and added a “new commandment.”
At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples as they sat at table with him, “This is my commandment. Love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13.
This is a totally new commandment. It isn’t modeled on civil law. It goes beyond a general call to love God and neighbor. It’s modeled on the very life of Jesus. It’s a commandment to love radically as he loved radically. Every day, Jesus opened his heart to anyone and everyone who needed the healing power of love. He reached out to the adulterous woman, the lepers rejected and isolated by society, the deaf, the crippled, the mentally ill, and political and religious enemies like the Samaritans. His commitment to love put him in dangerous opposition to the religious leadership of his day. His commitment to love put him on the road to the cross, and from that cross he showed us the meaning of his new commandment. “Love one another as I love you.”
This commandment is more than the call to love God and neighbor. It’s the call to love as Christ loved, sacrificially. There’s no more perfect love than sacrificial love. It’s, as Dante wrote, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”