Are you living the total gospel?
Live both commandments and walk in balance: Love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself
By rabbinical count, the Law consisted of some 613 commandments. The Jewish religion could easily slide into a slavish, impersonal keeping of laws which had been finely tuned by the rabbis. They taught that there were 248 parts of the human body, and had a law for each part. There are 365 days in the year, and they had a law for each day, totalling 613. The thinking was that this way they covered the whole human person as well as all of life. There were also 248 positive laws, and 365 prohibitions. They also made distinctions between light and heavy laws, some being much more important than others. Such was the Jewish religious reality at the time of Jesus.
According to Flor McCarthy, the question as to which commandment was the greatest was one frequently discussed among the rabbis. Jesus was asked to name one but responded by naming two. That is because, for him, the second followed directly and necessarily from the first. Love of neighbour arises out of love of God.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary adds to that insight. Jesus is presented here as having the power to interpret, and even re-state the Law. His answer quotes two Old Testament texts that form the foundation of the new morality of the Gospels (Deuteronomy 6:5 “Love God with all your heart, strength and mind” and Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”). Deuteronomy 6 is part of the Jewish schema or profession of faith.
The novelty here is in placing Leviticus 19 on the same level as the schema, making it equally “heavy.” There is no parallel in Jewish literature to this arrangement of the two commandments so that they become effectively one, thereby the “newness” of this commandment. Nowhere else are they stated as the two greatest commandments of the Law, nor are they so explicitly given equal weight. For Jesus, helping strangers, giving to the poor and being compassionate to all is just as important as prayer, worship and loving God. Matthew alone adds that the Law and prophets hang on these two commandments — that is, the entire revelation of the Old Testament.
There is a very human danger as life unfolds to emphasize one commandment to the detriment of the other. A naturally prayerful, pious person may spend hours in prayer for another person, yet neglect the necessity to try to be the answer to that prayer by loving actions toward that person.
On the other hand, a person inclined to work for social justice may exhaust him or herself in frenetic activity on behalf of some just cause, forgetting to renew their own personal resources with prayer and forgetting that ultimately it is God who will give the fruit. The great command to love God has as its inseparable counterpart the command to love neighbour. One cannot first love God and then, as a second task, love one’s neighbour. To love God is to love one’s neighbour, and vice versa. The challenge is to walk a balanced life and live both these commandments to the full.
Corbin Eddy adds an interesting commentary. He notes that Jesus misquotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and substitutes mind for might. This is significant, for mind and might are very different energy sources. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that a human person’s response to the law of God is not mindless nor simply rote effort to memorize many laws. Obedience, justice and love are not exercised without discretion. Just the contrary is true. The two great commandments engage our whole humanity in an ongoing conversation with God and with each other. To keep them well requires a passionate, heartfelt, soulful and mindful commitment to the God of the universe and to God’s created world.
Jesus is inviting us to commit with our whole being. There is nothing mechanical, boring or humdrum about being a “law-abiding citizen” — at least not according to Jesus. It is a passionate love affair with God and the whole of humanity.
Mary Vogrinc, a 46-year-old motivational speaker, is an exceptional example of someone who is living today’s readings. She and her husband have fostered 53 children and adopted two of them, in addition to raising three of their own biological children. She shares the story of one of the most difficult children they fostered, a teenager named Charlene. She had a history of abuse; her face was covered with a rash, and had terrible teeth. She and her brother proved to be a handful from the first. One night she lost her tooth, and was told to put it under the pillow for the tooth fairy. When she discovered a dollar’s worth of change there in the morning, she could hardly believe that she could do what she wanted with the money, even buy candy. However, that day they went to church. When the collection basket came around, Charlene asked what that was for. Her foster parents told her that it was for those who were less fortunate than they were. They noted that she carefully put most of her change in the basket, kept only a dime and said, “I think I will just keep a little for myself.” Mary was moved to tears by this parable of the widow’s mite being lived out by her most difficult foster child.
The eucharist is an experience in itself of living out this gospel. Certainly, we are here to love God back. We are also here to grow in our love for each other and to gain confidence and self-esteem for ourselves in living this way of love that Jesus has given us.
So, let us live the total gospel and walk in balance in our lives, by loving God, and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.