In today’s Gospel reading taken from Matthew, Jesus summarized the whole commandments as consisting in Loving God and loving one another.
For those conversant with the Scriptures, there is nothing new in Jesus’ answer. This is not something original. In Jewish writings long before Jesus’ time, these two commandments summarised the whole of the law.
In fact, Luke’s Gospel attributes this summary not to Jesus but to the Jewish lawyer who asked Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life.
But there is something we need to know about the Jewish idea of responsibility when it comes to who is to be loved. For them, everyone was to love God. That was compulsory. But everyone else was graded as to how much love they were to be given.
Those on the fringes of the community, like outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, Gentiles, Samaritans etc were to be loved less or were owed no love whatsoever.
By saying that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbour, Jesus gives a new slant to the traditional interpretation held by Pharisees. He puts both commands on an equal footing.
One is not more important than the other. To love God is to love my neighbour and to truly love my neighbour is to love God. In fact, we can’t make any sense out of Jesus’ radical command to love our enemies unless we first recognise the love that God has for us even though we are his enemies because of sin.
The love of God and the love of our neighbour are inseparable. We cannot claim to love God if we don’t love our neighbour.
But do we understand what Jesus means here when he uses the word love? It is a word that is used in different contexts. We talk about loving our dog, loving strawberries and chocolate.
When we use the word love like that, we are expressing our affection and warm feelings for whatever it is that we love. Because we associate the word “love” with affection it’s no wonder that we have difficulty loving those people who annoy us, those who have hurt us, and those who don’t deserve to be loved.
However, when the Bible talks about love, it primarily means commitment. We may have warm feelings of gratitude to God when we consider all that he has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Jesus is demanding of us. It is unwavering commitment.
It follows then that to love one another, including our enemies, doesn’t mean we must feel affection for them, rather it means a commitment on our part to take their needs seriously, just as God committed himself to taking our needs seriously by sending his Son into this world.
We see this in marriages where because of the aging process one partner has become physically incapacitated, difficult to live with, very demanding, and yet the other partner keeps on caring and putting up with it all.
This comes very close to the biblical idea of love. It’s that commitment even though it is not deserved. It is that unwavering commitment to the other person’s needs often at a great sacrifice to oneself.
That’s where many marriages go wrong. some couples say they are in love – they have warm feelings for each but not the commitment. When the warm feelings fade, so does their marriage.
This kind of love doesn’t come naturally. It is true that this kind of love comes from God, but putting it into practice is something we have to work on. Love – commitment – is a deliberate action of the will.
To love means deliberately to turn toward another person and their needs, to give away something of ourselves to someone else without thinking of what we will get in return.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a good example of a man loving his enemy, committing his money, time and energy to seeing to the needs of the man lying helpless along the road. He stopped to help and to accept the consequences.
All he could see was someone in need. This kind of love/commitment is self-sacrificing. It is putting the other person first, whether it is God or our neighbour.
In all honesty, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that this kind of love has been in short supply in our lives. In fact, if we could love perfectly, there would be no more sin in our world. If we can be truly committed to other people, then there would be no more violence, or war. What we say and do would only be gentle, kind and caring.
Because this is not the case, Jesus came to show us what true love is. His love touched the dumb, the deaf, the diseased, the disabled. His love warned, wept and washed dirty feet.
His love told of a shepherd searching for lost sheep, a Father rushing out to embrace and kiss his lost son as he welcomed him home. His love turned the other cheek, and willingly walked that extra mile. His love carried a cross — and died upon it!
His love welcomed each of us into God’s family, forgiving our sin in the water of our Baptism.
As his followers, as his adopted brothers, as his friends we are expected to do the same. Let us ask God in this Mass for his grace that will enable his love to shine through us into the lives of the people around us.