The Gospel for this weekend depicts another encounter with Jesus and the Pharisees regarding fundamental precepts of the law. As in previous conversations, the Pharisees proved they were not so much interested in being enlightened as in catching Jesus in contradictions.
One of those present with the Pharisees in this passage was a scholar of the law who asked Jesus this question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Take notice of how the question is first phrased. The law expert feigns respect by addressing Jesus as a ‘teacher.’ With over six hundred precepts in the Torah, singling out the greatest commandment would be quite a feat and possibly impossible to answer. The Pharisees were attempting to trap Jesus and hopefully expose him as a charlatan.
Undeterred by the Pharisee’s scheme, Jesus quoted directly from Scripture in his 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.” The first part of Jesus’ answer comes as no surprise to anyone; it is the first commandment, and without complete allegiance to God almighty, none of the other laws have meaning.
But Jesus does not stop there; he mentions another commandment inextricably connected to the first. Jesus says, “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
In responding to the religious leaders, Jesus intentionally links the first two commandments. No longer can we satisfy our obligation of loving God with our whole being while ignoring or partially obeying the second of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Although the first two commandments are not identical, they are inseparable. St. John, in his first letter to the nascent church, teaches this principle directly. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. “
The roadmap on how we are to love our neighbor is clearly stated in the ancient first reading for today from the Book of Exodus. We are told not to molest or oppress an alien; we shouldn’t do wrong to the vulnerable, such as the widow or orphan. If those oppressed cry out to the Lord, he will hear their cry, and the Lord’s wrath will flare up, and you will be killed, then your own family will be filled with widows and orphans. This passage also warns god-fearing people that the goods of others should be respected as much as their own.
When we feel we have obeyed the commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves, there is one last test to be sure: examine our conscience and determine whether we have fulfilled the most challenging aspect of loving our neighbor—forgiving. Recall when Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive, and Jesus told him almost infinitely. So often, we think we can love our neighbor, or at least the one who hasn’t offended us, and think we have fulfilled the first two commandments.
The failure to forgive another can be described as a momentary hatred for another and categorizes the alleged offender as an alien. As we have already seen, we cannot love God if we hate our brother, nor can we oppress an alien and still think we are loving God. The words of Jesus and the scripture tell us so.
All the words from scripture come to us with a Divine authority; they are words of God Himself. Rooted in Divine authority, such words and obligations transcend time and place, and their truths do not fade with time.
The message is undeniable: we cannot love God without loving our neighbor as ourselves. “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”