Commandments to Love
Last week I reflected on the commandment “Love your neighbor” as a fitting response to “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” In the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus links the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” with the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” As some Scripture scholars have noted, the scholar of the law who asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment was not necessarily looking for two commandments in Jesus’ answer. But Jesus does put them together and says, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
When you come right down to it, the commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbor are inextricably linked. We may be able to distinguish them in our minds, like the Three Persons in the Trinity, or the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but like those things I just mentioned, you can’t really separate them in practice.
As I look at the readings for this Sunday and the readings for the next few Sundays leading up to the end of the liturgical year with the Solemnity of Christ the King, we have an exploration, if you will, of various aspects of what it means to follow these commandments.
In our first reading from Exodus (22:20-26), we have some strong words coming from God to the Israelites:” Thus says the Lord: ‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.’” To love God and to listen to God involves taking care of the most vulnerable (widows and orphans) and respecting the “other” (alien). I feel that we Catholics in the U.S. should especially be sensitive to this, as we Catholics for a long time were considered “aliens” in this country, even into the 20th Century, shown in how some reacted to the candidacies of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy for President. At the same time, perhaps trying to prove how “American” we were, the Catholic Church in the U.S. did not embrace the abolitionist movement. With both of those things in mind, no matter where we stand on the debate about immigration or racism or prejudice, we can still heed the command not to molest or oppress those we consider “alien.”
Our second reading from 1 Thessalonians (1:5c-10), St. Paul praises the Christians from Thessalonica, because knowledge of their conversion inspired by Paul and his companions and their subsequent faith came to be known in other places, so much so, that when Paul and the others would come to those places they had “no need to say anything,” because the people at those places would “openly declare about us what reception we had among you and how you turned from idols to serve the living and true God…” To love God and love our neighbor involves turning away from the “idols” of violence, greed, self-righteousness, prejudice, and complacency, and to turn towards working for justice and making peace.
And how incredible would it be if our conversion “to serve the living and true God” were so well known! Again, this would not be from a stance of feeling superior or wanting to force things on others. Instead, it would come from a demonstration of love.
May we hold together the two commandments to love and live them out with the love God has for us.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.