On Matthew 22:34-40
Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?
As over the past six Sundays, we find Jesus today in conflict with Jewish leaders who are out to destroy him. So today’s Gospel begins with yet another device, yet another trick question, yet another trap, designed to ensnare or incriminate Jesus. But on this occasion we hear from him no answering word of sharp rebuke or harsh condemnation. Instead we have just his luminous response, about the two-fold commandment of love.
It’s spoken without any hesitation, and with total authority; so simple yet so profound; a distillation of all his own teaching, and of all divine revelation; few words, yet shot through with the Holy Spirit, and with heavenly wisdom; words that touch our deepest yearnings, and that come to us as refreshment, and consolation, and blessing.
Both of the commandments Jesus cites are to be found in the Old Testament; though neither is among the Ten Commandments. The first is taken from the book of Deuteronomy, and the second from Leviticus. The Jews knew these commandments, and tried to live by them. The contemporary pagan world of Greece and Rome did not know them: as our modern secular world does not know them. For a modern audience one might rephrase the question: How is any human life best fulfilled?
Answer: not by success, but by love. What is moral living? Not according to political correctness, but according to love. What is most important in our life? Not pleasure, nor wealth, nor health, nor beauty, nor fame, but only love. And as St. Paul says, without love, everything else in life becomes merely booming gongs or clanging cymbals, profiting us nothing (1 Cor 13:1).
Of course the order of the two loves is essential, as are their different qualities. Love of God first: with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. Anything less than that would be unworthy of God, and unworthy of us also. Then, secondly, and in strict dependence on the first: love of neighbour; love that is similar, but not the same. We love our neighbour as one made in God’s image; we love him as one who with us is utterly dependent on God; who with us is in total need of God’s blessing and mercy. We desire our neighbour’s good, as we desire our own good. This good must ultimately be a right relationship with God.
Actually we can only love others rightly and adequately when the first love is properly in place. Drama and Opera are full of stories of disordered human passions, which seem to be love, but turn out to be consuming, irrational, destructive. If we love another person or thing with the worship due to God alone, we demean and enslave ourselves, and fall into idolatry, and project our love towards an illusion. Whereas: human love that is nourished at the wellspring of uncreated, eternal love must tend to flourish, and deepen, and fulfil, and liberate, and give joy, and life, and blessing. St. Aelred knew this; he discusses it in his treatise on Christian Friendship.
Not only that. Generous, well-ordered love of neighbour becomes for us a primary and indispensable means of loving God. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: If you are offering your gift at the Altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there … and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Mt 5:23). Or as St. John puts it: If anyone says I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar (1 Jn 4:20). How many Saints have expressed their love for God by seeking out the most wretched, the poorest, most humiliated, weakest members of society, and loving them, and raising them up, to reveal their intrinsic dignity as persons worthy of love!
The Scribes and Pharisees could accept the conclusion of Jesus today, that the twin commandment of love is an adequate summary of the whole Old Testament. So the question arises: if that is so, what difference does Jesus make? And we answer at once: of course the difference he makes is radical and transforming.
In the first place, Jesus invites us now to love according to the measure of his own love: the love whereby he loved both his Father and us to the end; faithful even in Gethsemani; enduring for us the passion, and the Cross, and death itself. Then, and even more so: precisely as a result of his saving death and resurrection, Jesus now invites us to love with the power of his own love. Identified with him, indwelt by his Holy Spirit, ever turned towards God the Father, our love, and our life, is to be henceforth “in Christ”.
So we are to love with the very love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We sing of this Heart in the litany: fornax ardens caritatis – burning furnace of charity; abyss of all virtues; treasury of all wisdom and knowledge; dwelling place of the fullness of divinity; fountain of life and of holiness; source of all consolation; our peace and our reconciliation; the delight of the Saints: have mercy on us, and make our heart like your Heart.
The whole of the Old Testament was a preparation, a foretaste, a promise, a guide towards this. Now that Christ has come, to live according to the twin commandment of love must be the central project of our life. This is how we must measure success or failure; it’s on this that we must ultimately be judged. The Benedictine, cenobitic, monastic life is designed to help us live out that project, those commandments, and also to encourage everyone who encounters it to do the same.
We began our Mass today with the wonderful Second Mode Introit Laetetur cor (Ps 104:3-4). According to that text, one central desire drives us ever onwards through our life. It’s the desire for God; seeking God; seeking his face always. And even as we seek Him, we constantly rejoice, because we know that our goal is good, and worth while, and that if we persevere in faith and hope and love, then we will reach it.
And now we have the Holy Eucharist, which testifies that we do not struggle on with our project alone. We are with the whole of the Catholic Church, and God in Christ is with us, and in us.
God is love, says St. John, and whoever abides in love, abides in God, and God abides in him (1 Jn 4:16).