30th Sunday OT Year A 2011
In today's gospel, people are trying to trick Jesus again. You may have noticed that this has been a recurring theme these last couple of weeks. But, in the midst of these treacherous discussions we receive some of the most profound teaching on what it means to be Christian. Today is no exception: what is the greatest commandment: love!
As we reflect on love, it makes me ponder a few things. First of all, how can God really command us to love? In other words, is love the kind of thing that can be commanded? Secondly, why is love the greatest commandment? Finally, how can we put this commandment into practice?
It seems to me that the words "love" and "commandment" are incompatible. I would say that love, by definition, is a free act of the will whereby we give of ourselves to another. This seems to be what Jesus is talking about when he says we are to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul. Nothing is to be held back, but we are to give ourselves completely to God. But, I would also argue, that if we are commanded to love, it removes something essential to what it means to be human: our free will. Normally when we think about commandments they are designed to override the free will of another. Parents out there, you have to command your children to do all kinds of icky things that they wouldn't want to do on their own: clean your room, eat your peas, be nice to your sister, etc. Is the command to love, then, the same kind of thing?
Jesus did not come up with this great command on his own. In fact, this command comes from the Old Testament. In the book of Deuteronomy we hear the great Shema prayer of Israel: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul. The command to love never sits in a vacuum. It is always intimately tied to what comes before it: The Lord is God, the Lord alone. In other words, the Lord first loves us, he is our God, he has chosen us to be his own: therefore, we must love him. God does not command love in an arbitrary way, nor does the command to love God take away our free will. Rather, the command to love is nothing more than God telling us precisely how we are to enter into a relationship with him. God has first loved us, if we are going to enter into this relationship, we love him back with our whole heart, mind, soul, everything. Rather than being a denial of our free will, loving God is the completion of our free will.
Why is this the greatest commandment? Jesus is telling us today that the whole law, all the commandments and precepts of the Bible and of the Church are aimed at one thing: love. Here is a quote from St. Augustine that says it so well: "Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good." If we love God above all things, love our neighbor as ourselves, we will be living lives of virtue and holiness. If we really loved God above all things, our neighbor as ourselves we would not need laws like: you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal. All these laws lead to love, but they are not the same as love. But, if we love, these laws will have no meaning for us. This is why the Catechism calls love the fulfillment of the law.
But, this is easy to say, hard to do. How do we put this into action? St. Paul uses a great word today: imitate. He applauds the Thessalonians for being his imitators. For Paul, being a Christian meant imitating him, because he imitated Christ. Our life of discipleship is a life of trying to imitate Jesus. There is no greater love than to lay your life down for another. Right here on this cross we see what love looks like. In Jesus we see the greatest command being carried out: his self-gift of love brought about the new life of the Resurrection. By looking up the cross of Christ we see how to follow this great command: we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves when we lay down our lives in service of others.