“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
We all know from catechism class that God gave Moses ten commandments. But in the centuries after Moses, Israel became dissatisfied with just these ten. Like children who argue against their parents, the people of Israel nit-picked the Ten Commandments, in order to justify themselves and their actions. So the leaders of Israel added smaller and more particular commandments, to prop up the Ten. By the time of Jesus, the common teaching of the Law of Israel involved 613 commandments.
From the Commandments that deal with “loving our neighbor”, the Jewish scholars of the law produced 14 particular commandments about business practices, 19 about employees, servants and slaves, 36 about courts and judicial procedure, eleven about property rights, seven about criminal law, and 24 about punishment and restitution. And that doesn’t exhaust the commands to “love our neighbor”! When you turn to “loving God”, the lists of commandments are even longer, including 33 about the Temple and sacred objects, 46 about idolatry, and 102 about sacrifices and offerings!
With 613 commandments, it was easy for the average Jew to lose focus. Jesus wanted to bring focus back, just as He wants for you and your family today. He wants to bring focus to the rhythm of your daily life, as it unfolds week after week. This focus will strengthen your life, in proportion to the time you give to living Jesus’ answer: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.”
But it’s interesting what happens next. The scholar of the law didn’t ask Jesus which commandment in the law is the second greatest. But Jesus tells Him anyway. Maybe you know people who answer your questions like this: you ask them one question, but their answer is the answer to a different question. God is like this in our prayer, at times. God always answers our prayers, but He doesn’t always answer in the way we hope. Sometimes His answer doesn’t seem to correspond at all to what we were talking to Him (or maybe at Him) about. However, when God changes the subject of the conversation, maybe it’s better to turn the conversation over to Him, and spend more time listening.
In today’s Gospel passage, when Jesus gives the answer to a question that the scholar didn’t ask, He makes clear that the second-greatest commandment is very important. Reflect for a moment on the Ten Commandments: out of the ten, the first three are about “loving your God”, and the latter seven are about “loving your neighbor”. Why are there more than twice as many commands about “loving your neighbor” than there are about “loving your God”? It’s not because loving your neighbor is twice as important as loving your God. More likely, it because loving your neighbor is twice as difficult as loving your God. The English writer, G. K. Chesterton, once observed that “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people!”
Why is Chesterton right? Why, so often, are our neighbors also our enemies? In this second-greatest commandment, when Jesus commands you to love your neighbor as yourself, He’s not using the word “neighbor” as we might be tempted to do. We, in our fallen human nature, want to shrink the meaning of “neighbor” to as few people as possible. That’s why Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, so that His followers would see every human being as their neighbor.
So then, the second-greatest command is to love every human being as yourself. That’s very daunting. That’s impossible to carry out without divine grace. Vices in our fallen human nature make this command very hard to carry out.
To love is to follow the Spirit of the law. To love is to fulfill the letter of the law, instead of circumventing its intent. To love is even to go beyond the law, because the law is only a guide pointing in the direction that love will take us. The law isn’t meant to tell us where to stop.