“Love of God and Love of Neighbour”

Reflection for 30 Sunday in Ordinary Time: “Love of God and Love of Neighbour” by Sr Sarah O’Rourke, Salesian Sister.

Lectio divina on Mt 22,34-40 – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

This Gospel passage is well known to us today. Jesus is not revealing anything new when he teaches that loving God without limit and loving our neighbour as ourselves are the basic duties of every believer. We know so well what the first commandment is, the one that really matters, that maybe we feel free in relation to keeping the others. And maybe there is a certain reason for this way of thinking.  It is not too hard for us to convince ourselves that we really love God, yet we pay little enough attention to what he wants of us. We think we love him sincerely and we dispense ourselves from getting to know his will. We know the love we have for God but we pay little heed to God’s love for us. Many good Christians think it is enough to love God without trying to love his will. For that reason, they do not pay much attention to God’s commandments.

At that time: 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.               36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

What was originally a friendly discussion (see Mk 12,28-34) is presented in Matthew as  a serious debate on the meaning of Scripture.  After his successful argument against the Sadducees (Mt 22,23-33), the Pharisees felt obliged to engage an expert to test Jesus, who was acknowledged as a teacher. The question may seem reasonable, given the large number of precepts contained in the law, but the evangelist notes the bad intention that motivated the questioners. This is not therefore, a genuine discussion between different schools of interpretation, but a trap set for Jesus. His reply is traditional and even orthodox. He combines two commandments of the Law: total love of God (Deut 6,5) and love of neighbour as oneself (Lev 19,18). The gospel makes no mention of his listeners’ reactions – they could not but agree with him.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus does not propose a scale of priority between the two precepts, (as in Mk 12,31).  He puts them both on the same level. One is the greatest and first commandment and the second resembles it.   They are not identical or equivalent, but they are perfect and inseparable. They are not interchangeable, nor can the order be altered. Jesus concludes the discussion by saying that together they contain the whole law, and, he adds unexpectedly, the prophets. Both are necessary and binding. They are not free options. They do not depend on how much God or neighbour deserves to be loved, but only on obedience to God. The law and the prophets depend on that double love, which is, therefore, the basis of the law.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

The law had 248 precepts and 365 prohibitions. It is easy then to understand the bewilderment of those at the time of Jesus who sought to observe the law. If every article of the law was willed by God, then none of them could be neglected. But was there some part of the law that was more important than all the rest?  Jesus’ reply was not original but it highlights the problem and it gave a criterion to determine how the law was to be obeyed.  Mere obedience is not enough. What matters is the quality and motive of our obedience. The obedience due to God is a matter of love.  Only by accepting this can we do God’s will.  The obedient person is different from a slave precisely because he loves the master he serves. God does not want slaves but people who love him. God, obviously, must take first place in this obedience of love. If this is the case, then our love of neighbour has a firm foundation.

The essential thing in obeying the law is not the scrupulous fulfilment of every detail of the law, but the motive for our obedience, love of God and neighbour. If we love God and neighbour, then everything we do is in accordance with God’s will. If we do not love God and neighbour with all our heart, our obedience is nothing more than scrupulous observance of the law.  If that is the nature of our obedience then we are not really concerned about what God wants of us, either because we take it for granted or because we don’t want to know.

Our problem today is not that of the people of Jesus’ time who sought to obey God’s will even in the most insignificant details of the law. Faced with the multiplicity of precepts and prohibitions – more than 600 in all – the people were confused, and no wonder. If everything was God’s will, then nothing could be regarded as unimportant. If everything was commanded, then everything had to be obeyed.  To disobey one precept was to disobey God’s will.

But that kind of obedience required an extraordinary effort that was bound to prove oppressive and, in the end, useless. Who could boast of having observed all 248 precepts, and who could say he had never transgressed even one of the 365 prohibitions?  It was this sincerely held religious concern that prompted Jesus to reflect and ask if there were not something in the law that was more important than all the rest. Was there not something special, that God wanted of his people above everything else?

Jesus’ reply was not very original.  Other teachers had given similar solutions to the problem. However, they stuck to the question: love of God, complete and without exception, was the first commandment. We might be inclined to think that simple answer was enough to solve the problem. However, it might also appear that by reducing all the commandments of the law to the exclusive love of God, Jesus made life more complicated for us. It is not a matter of limiting ourselves to what God has commanded or forbidden, if indeed that were possible.  God insists that, when we obey him, we do so, not because we want to, but because we truly love him. In serving God, anything we do simply because it is commanded is of no value, if it is not done as an expression of our love for God.   For this reason, therefore, the first thing God asks of his people is not exact obedience in fulfilment of his will, but total personal love.

The God of Jesus does not want well-behaved sons and daughters, but sons and daughters who love him.  Obedience that does not come from the heart might be very exact and complete, but is of no merit and is not worthy of God. Scrupulous fulfilment of God’s will is of no value if it is motivated only by fear.  A human master is obeyed out of fear, but not so the Father. We expect recognition and payment when we serve a human master, but we expect nothing from the Father. Respect for God and for his law comes from the heart and not from fear. If we feel obliged to do the will of God without really loving him, our efforts are in vain and our obedience is false. Instead of loving God our Father, we are reduced to obeying God as our master. Obedience, no matter how exact and thorough it may be, is of no value if it is not the fruit of love.

The obedience due to God is, therefore, a matter of love. Loving God with our whole heart comes first and is more important than simply doing with our hands what God wants of us. God wants to transform his servants into sons and daughters, and for this reason wants us to love him with all our hearts. It is by loving God that we obey him. Unfortunately it is possible to live a Christian life, being very careful to obey God’s law and proud that we do not offend him too much, and still not love God with our hearts above everything else. That kind of life is of very little value.

If we ask ourselves today, what is it that makes us do God’s will, it will help us to see how much God matters to us, and whether or not we truly love God. If we continue to be good Christians, seeking to observe God’s law, only because we are afraid of one day losing him, and because we fear God’s punishment, we have already lost the Father we have in God and we have ceased to be the children he wants us to be.

Observance of God’s law is, then, a matter of the heart.  God loves all his children and wants us to love one another. The second command, which obliges just as much as the first, makes our neighbour the centre of our attention. Anyone who keeps God’s law becomes his brother’s guardian. The obedience we owe to God, fruit and expression of the love we have for him, compels us to recognise in our neighbour a child beloved by God. And it demands that we love our neighbour as God wants us to, in other words, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The reply given by Jesus could not have been better. God who desires from us an obedience based on love is not asking for something difficult or impossible.

The essential thing in the fulfilment of God’s law is not scrupulous observance of the detailed prescriptions of a set of rules, but the love of God and neighbour.  If we love God and neighbour, everything we do is the fulfilment of God’s will. If we do not love with all our hearts, then we are doing nothing more than observing a law, and it does not matter how perfect our observance may be.  Observance of the law is worth nothing if it does not make us love God and our neighbour as ourselves.

Jesus’ reply creates a problem. He does not want us only to obey him, often in little things. He insists that everything we do be done with our whole hearts. The person who does the will of God because he loves God, and loves his neighbour because God wants him to,  is never satisfied, even when he has done all that is prescribed. Anyone who truly loves will always want to love more, and obedience will cost him less because he loves. If we are less concerned with obedience to God today than they were in the time of Jesus, is it perhaps because we do not love God as much as they did? If our religious practice does not put God above all the other things we love, then why do we continue to obey God? If doing his will does not transform us into loving children, our obedience is of little value.

Jesus puts before us the will of God as the norm for the whole of our lives so that we may love God while we obey him. This makes our obedience become easy. Jesus also proposes that we love our neighbour as ourselves, so that we may meet ourselves in loving him.  This makes our obedience remain easy.