The Greatest Commandment
GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim, Sj (The Freeman) - October 28, 2017 - 4:00pm

Even the best of quotations and slogans has a built-in problem.  Years of use can turn them stale and ineffective.  They lose their punch or flavor.  For example, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”  “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” or, “Christ is the answer” are just clichés, no longer catchy as they used to be.

“Love God above all else.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  We’ve heard it too often.  It has lost its punch. Perhaps to capture its original thunder we can contemplate three scenes: Jesus surrounded by Pharisees, Jesus surrounded by his disciples, Jesus surrounded by you and me.

First, picture Jesus surrounded by Pharisees.  Somewhat like annoying reporters hustling a celebrity or political candidate, everyone shouting his rude question. 

A clever lawyer tries to trap Jesus, to outsmart him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?”  A tricky question – why?  Because the law had 613 commandments – 248 do’s and 365 don’ts.  Pick the wrong one and you’re doomed.

Many a Pharisee would have nodded approvingly, had Jesus stopped after a single sentence, his excerpt from the great prayer in Deuteronomy:  “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!  Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength…”  (Deut. 6: 4-8)

This prayer devout Jews recited long before Bethlehem; here was their exultant proclamation of faith. 

A book of law expressed the relation of man and woman to God in terms of love:  Israel’s love for God and God’s love for Israel.  At no moment might the Israelite forget that love.  It had to be transmitted to the next generation, a total love, for the word “heart” includes mind and will and emotions.  Soul was the whole, vital human person.

But no, it is not with this response that Jesus surprised the Pharisees.  What shocked them was a “second” commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39)  It startled them because to find it they would have to dig through all sorts of rules in the Book of Leviticus.  It startled them because Jesus proclaimed that this second commandment was “like” the first.

Loving the neighbor is like loving God? Unthinkable!

It startled them because for them the neighbour was only a fellow Israelite or a resident alien.   For Jesus, the neighbour was the despised Samaritan, the idolatrous Gentile, and the enemy.

It startled them because Jesus proclaims, “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”  Live these two and you live them all. Live these two and you are doing God’s will, His total will.

Now move to the next scene – Jesus surrounded by his disciples.  Notice the twin commandment is so all embracing, so ingenuous, so liberating that we might think it takes care of Christian existence as well. 

But note what the question was: “Which is the great commandment of the law?”  In the law… in the Jewish law.  This is the question Jesus answers.  We too have to love God above all else, love others as we love ourselves.  Do that and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be happy with you.

Happy, but not satisfied.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Jesus.  So, sneak into the Last supper room.  Focus your eyes and ear on Jesus and his disciples: “A new commandment I give you – Love one another as I have loved you.”  Not just “Love on another” Not simply “Love one another as you love yourselves.”  No, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  (John 15:12)

What precisely is it that is “new” in this commandment?   You may say that what is new is the model of Love:  Our love for one another must reflect Jesus’ love for us.

And how did Jesus love us?  You can hardly count the ways.  For love of us he gave up the glory that was his with the Father, was born of a teen-age Jewish girl,  took on a human body like ours, grew up in a small village, where everyone knew all about him except the one big secret – that he was not Joseph’s son but God’s.

For love of us, he walked the dusty roads of Palestine, healing the sick, restoring the dead to life, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.  He was hungry at times and thirsty, with no set place to rest his head.  Each word, each gesture speaks of love, all of it crowned by love’s agony on a cross.

No greater love than this, to lay down your life for a friend – or for an enemy.

This indeed is the way we ought to love.  But you will not fathom how new the commandment is unless you put yourselves within the Supper that gave it to us. 

The context of the “new commandment” is the “new covenant” – “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  Both expressions, “new covenant” and “New commandment” reflect an early Christian conviction: 

In Jesus and his followers the dream of the prophet Jeremiah is fulfilled: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…  But this is the covenant, which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.”

“I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their god, and they shall be my people.”

What is it that distinguishes God’s covenant love from the noblest form of human love?  It is so wonderfully spontaneous.   Love is not forced from God by some power outside, not by any magic prayer formula or seduced from God by our lovable personalities. 

Quite the opposite – God’s love goes out to men and women who are sinners, who are utterly unworthy of love divine, who cannot demand that love.

They become God’s beloved simply because He wants it so, can love God only because He wants it so, can love God only because He loves them.

This kind of love we Christians find “new,” discover in its most radical form, when God gives His only Son – to reveal that love and to live it in His very death.

Such should be our new love.  It is the prayer of Jesus to his father at the Last Supper.  “I in them and You in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  (John 17: 21-23)

This brings us to the third scene: picture Jesus surrounded by you and me.  It’s a larger crowd than the Pharisees, larger than the original disciples.  As we crowd toward him, press him off dry land and into the boat, what question should we ask him? 

Not “the great commandment.”  We know that.  Not who our model is in loving.  That is still Jesus.

Today’s question is a how – How ought we to live the love commandment today and here?

There is no single answer for all.  God speaks to us in varied ways.  We have to keep asking with St. Paul, “What do you want me to do, Lord?”

The danger is – I may sit comfortably in my lounging chair waiting for Jesus to knock me over and spell it out.  Knocking Christians over is not the Lord’s standard operational procedure.  He works more subtly, through His grace in our hearts.

Love of God and of others has a basic problem – my experience, better my inexperience.  It is supremely difficult to love God above all things, specifically in crisis, if I have not touched God, if God is an abstraction:  Creator of the universe, Lord of the living and the dead, Author of the Ten Commandments. 

There is no thrill, no excitement – my heart does not tingle with a one-on-one relationship here.  I am not speaking of vision and ecstasy, and a “wow” experience, something out of this world.

Have I encountered God in a personal meaningful way?  If I have not, it will be extremely hard for me to love God more than I love myself, more than I love another whose eyes I can meet, whose flesh I can caress.

The 26-year-old Jesuit scholastic, Richie Fernando, encountered Christ and fell in love with him in a personal way to heed the call for the mission in Cambodia.  He met Christ and loved him in the young Cambodians he worked with.  He literally followed Jesus’ command of love by sacrificing his life to protect students, including the troublemaker from a grenade blast.

Experience of God, experience of evil, on second thought, maybe like St. Paul, I do need to be knocked to the ground… if I am to get up as a Christian.

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