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Gospel Reflection 29 Oct

Thirtieth Sunday of Year A [Mt 22:34-40]

29 October 2017

The Greatest Commandment

Readings: (1) Ex 22:20-26 (2) 1 Thess 1:5-10

1.   Theme in brief

Inter-relation between love of God and neighbour

2.   Focus Statement  

If our love and worship of God is genuine, it must be authenticated by our service to the needy.

3.  Explanation of the text

According to this gospel text, a lawyer from Pharisees asks a question with a hostile intention; that is, totest Jesus (22:34-35). He wants to know which commandment among so many in the Law of Moses is thegreatest (2:36). Probably the lawyer wants to know whether all the statutes of the Law (totally 613) are equally important for Jesus, or whether some are more important and some less. Or by using the word "greatest" probably he wants to know the summary of the whole Law or its centre.

Though the lawyer asks about only
one (the greatest) commandment, Jesus gives two without being asked. Actually both of the commandments cited by Jesus are already in the OT. Deuteronomy 6:5 says: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might," and Leviticus 19:18, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." What is special about Jesus’ teaching is that he links together or combines these two widely scattered commandments in two different Books of the OT and makes both of them the greatest. He does this by saying that the second (that is, loving one’s neighbour as oneself) is like the first (22:39) or equal to the first in importance. In other words, he regards the second as of the same value or rank as the first.  Thus, he gives both the commandments a new andradical meaning. By doing this, he emphasizes the relatedness of these two commandments, and wants to tell his questioner that he cannot practise real love of God without loving his neighbours.

Jesus teaches that both commandments are not exclusive of each other. What he means is that one cannot love God
exclusively without showing that love to one’s neighbours. Thus, he gives a social slantto one’s religious or spiritual duty to love God. At the end he states that these two commandments are like the threads on which both the Law and the prophets (that is, the entire OT) hang (22:40). In other words, the whole Law rests on these two pillars. Whereas the Jewish Rabbis used to say that the whole world hangs on the Law, Jesus says that the Law itself hangs on love of God authenticated by deeds of mercydone to the needy. The two commandments not only summarize all other laws but also provide the key forinterpreting and understanding the meaning of all other laws.

Jesus’ combination of two commandments indicates that there is no
hierarchy (that is, higher and lower rank) among two types of love: of God and neighbour. What is new in it is his redefinition of what love of God is – it not only means devotion to and worship of God but also service to one’s neighbour done out of love for God. According to him the greatest commandments, though two, are in fact one – to love God by loving our neighbours. In Luke’s gospel Jesus explains that our "neighbour" (Lk 10:25-37) could beanybody in need or is suffering.

Some even say that there are three commandments in this text: (1) to love God; (2) to love our neighbours; and (3) to love oneself. But the fact is, love of self in this context is
presumed as natural and we are commanded to love our neighbours just as we love ourselves naturally. Self-love does not need a commandment.

4.  Application to life                     

Ever since Jesus combined or linked together the two OT commandments to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, various ways of understanding this teaching have emerged. These twin commandments are among those most misunderstood by many interpreters and preachers throughout Christian history. Which is the greatest commandment: to love God or to love neighbour? For the Jews (and for many Christians even today) love of God is more important and superior to love of neighbour, since it is mentioned as the greatest and first commandment by Jesus himself (22:38). But many Christians forget that according to Jesus, love of neighbour is also the greatestcommandment, because he says that the second one is like or of the same rank as love of God. Some say that both love of God and neighbours are two separate commandments and mean different things. They say that love of God includes praising, thanking, worshipping, adoring and offering oneself to God, or faithfully fulfilling one’s religious/spiritual duties. This, they say, is our first duty. According to them, love of neighbour includes whatever service we render to others. But it comes in the second place after fulfilling our duties towards God. There seems to be no basis for this argument in the present gospel text, since the word ‘first’ in this context, as explained above, does not imply first in rank, but only first in a list. Moreover, Jesus says that the second is exactly like the first (22:39).

By combining two widely scattered statement of the OT, Jesus means to say that loving God with one’s heart, soul and mind, includes
doing good, serving, caring and showing genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbours just as we do all these things to ourselves naturally. In our world, especially in the minds of the youth, love is equated with physical attraction between a boy (man) and a girl (woman) and is associated with intense feelings or emotion and natural attraction. But the whole of NT gives a special connotation to the word "love" (agape).  According to it, love is neither strictly emotional nor passive. It is not simply a happy feeling of friendliness or good will towards somebody. How can we look at the face of an enemy and have feelings of attraction? If we go by natural attraction, it is impossible to love such a person. Whereas natural attraction happens without our control or will, loving our enemy (that is, doing good to him/her) cannot happen without a decision of the mind, or making a conscious choice and acting upon it.

Love of neighbour is an
active response to our experience of God’s love – a response shown in concrete actions, such as doing good to others, rendering service, showing compassion, performing deeds of mercy and doing self-sacrifice for the needy. It means doing these things even if we don’t have a good feeling or affection towards them as we have towards our friends and family members. In other words, it means primarily love of concern for the needy (Lk 6:32-33; 6:35), whether we have good feeling or natural attraction towards them or not. If we have, it is well and good; if we do not have also we are called to do good to anyone who is in need (Lk 10:29-37). Thus Christian love goes far beyond love of friendship or beyond our kinship circle, which is limited to a few persons. We return God’s love by loving our neighbour in whom he is encountered.

There is nothing wrong in the traditional understanding of what love of God means – praying, worshipping and adoring God or being faithful to one’s duties towards God. Besides this, Jesus has given us a new understanding of what love of God means by taking it far
beyond its traditional understanding. He wants to tell those who try to seek God in prayer, fasting, renunciation, ritual worship, etc., they cannot find him if they have no concern for the welfare of others, or if they are not bothered to do good to the needy. Many of us are satisfied only by attending church on Sundays and going through some traditional prayers. But we do not allow our faith or religious practices to influence our behaviour in such a way that it overflows into genuine love for neighbours, especially the suffering and the needy. Actually, religious practices become meaningless if they do not lead us to show concern for human needs. When we claim to be Christians only for social identity and our own personal salvation, our claim becomes nothing but hollow.

There are people who do a lot of social service but do not believe in God or any Supreme Being. They call it
humanitarian work or service to humanity. Sometimes practising Christians, including some priests and religious in the Catholic Church, are tempted to do social work purely for humanitarian motives. They are tempted to get immersed in material welfare and give God only a little corner. In his love commandment, Jesus combines spirituality with social concern. Actually, our social service is not purely humanitarian, but has its roots in the love of God. It flows out of our experience of God’s love through Christ. Spiritual minded people have to ask themselves whether their behaviour and actions match with their devotion to God, and social workers need to ask themselves whether their service is motivated by God’s love or something else. Jesus has made an intimate connection between our worship of God and service to neighbours. In John’s Letter this connection is more explicit: "We love (others) because he (God) first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:19-20).

If not for God’s love, why on earth should we do good to those who hate, abuse, strike on our cheek and take away our belongings as Jesus teaches (Lk 6:27-35)? Since it is not in our
human nature, it becomes extremely difficult (if not impossible) even when we want to do it on humanitarian ground. When there is so much love of God in our hearts, we are able to rise above our normal nature with supernatural grace better than those who do not have such motives. We are not commanded to be affectionate or friendly towards these people but to do good to such people also by making a decision of the mind. To love God with all one's heart, soul and mind, is to choose to respond to God’s love as God has chosen to love us, in spite of our unworthiness. For example, in many traditional families there are conflicts between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, not because both of them know ‘law’ but because they do not have natural attractiontowards each other as blood-related persons have. Even if they do not have natural liking, good feeling and attraction for each other, they can decide to serve, care for and help each other only if they are motivatedby the love of God. In every situation (in family, neighbourhood, religious community or workplace) we have to daily decide to accept people as they are; to do good even if they do not; to make sacrifices for the welfare of others; to help even those who never help us; to forgive those who have offended us; etc. Loving is not a feeling but a choice.

Why is love, as taught by Jesus, a
commandment? First of all, Jesus does not command emotion oraffection, but action. He commands active love or love to be shown in action such as doing deeds of mercy even when we don't feel like doing them towards those with whom we do not have a good feeling. Secondly, Jesus, our Teacher summons us (his disciples) everyday to obey his twin commandments. He will do so till the end of our lives. Since we can never exhaust the limits, scope and opportunities for love, the Master continues to command us (his disciples) every day to love selflessly, to serve the needy, to make sacrifices for the welfare of others, to share our resources with those who do not have, to forgive those who have offended us, etc. Since it is difficult to love those who do not love us, Christ’s command reminds us to make a decision to love such people with his grace. If we disobey our Guru every time, how can we be called his faithful disciples? Thus love, as taught by Jesus, is a decision of the mind to be made everyday.

5.  Response to God's Word

Do we consciously do good, render a service, show compassion, perform deeds of mercy and do self-sacrifice for the needy, by making a decision of the mind even if we don’t have a good feeling towards them? Do our faith or religious practices influence our behaviour is such a way that they motivate us to serve and do deeds of mercy to our neighbours, especially the suffering and the needy? Do we live our lives by choice – by making decisions of the mind daily to accept people as they are; to do good even if they do not; to make sacrifices for the welfare of others; to help even those who never help us in our family, neighbourhood, religious community or workplace? Do we always try to remain as faithful disciples of our Master (Jesus) by obeying his greatest commandment in this manner?

6.  A prayer

Dear and merciful God, grant that we may consciously do deeds of mercy and self-sacrifice for anyone in need out of choice.  May our faith and religious practices influence our behaviour is such a way that we get motivated to render service to the suffering and the needy. We are sorry for the times we lived as unfaithful disciples of our Master (Jesus) by disobeying his greatest commandment of loving God by loving our neighbours. Amen.

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