The love of God and neighbour are the essential foundation of our Christian religion, and our relationship with God in Christ. Our life can only be authentic only when these two commandments are observed. Amidst the challenges, persecutions, hatred and violence that permeate our world and society, we Christians are challenged to practice the politics of compassion, to learn the virtue of mercy, forgiveness and to crown it with love. In today’s gospel, the Pharisees asked Jesus Christ which commandment in the law is the greatest. This episode is the third in a string of four controversy stories in Matthew 22, which are: “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar or not?” (Matt 22:15-22); Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be?” (Matt 22:23-33). In which the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus. This is different from the accounts in Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-28, where the questioner is sincere and receives affirmation from Jesus. In Matthew’s account, the Pharisees’ question tests Jesus in two ways.
First, all the commandments are important and all must be kept. If Jesus were to say that some could be disregarded, they would have caught him. More likely, the Pharisees were trying to see if Jesus could match other famous teachers of the time who could summarize the law. Jesus replies by citing the love commandments from Deut.6:5 and Lev.19:18. The two commandments were well known to the Jews, and Jesus just reiterated what they already know. Our relationship with God has a vertical and also horizontal dimension: on the Vertical (Deut.6:5), which is the love of God. This is the “Shemah Israel”, the monotheistic creed of Israel that the faithful recited as part of their daily prayers. It is the greatest commandment of the Torah because it spells out the highest obligation of every person, which is to love the Lord with the combined strength of one’s heart, soul, and mind. The love he demands is not simply affection or emotion but a commitment to keep the Lord’s covenant. It is the first Hebrew sentence a child learns and it is the utterance with which every Jew is supposed to breath his last. On the Horizontal, the love of our neighbour (Lev.19:18).
This commandment calls us to love our neighbour with the same solicitude with which we naturally care for ourselves. Jesus combines the two Gospels and demonstrates that they really amount to two faces of the same coin. The one commandment of love in two faces now summarizes the 613 commandments of the Old Law. Jesus understands the two commandments and in a radical way demonstrates them in his life and teaching. He says in John 15:13 that there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends. And in John 13:35 he says that it is by the practice of such love that men and women will know that we are his disciples. Jesus further elucidates that everything in the Law and the Prophets, that is, in the whole of Scripture depends on these two commandments of love. In Matthew’s eyes, the two commandments are on equal footing, and one cannot put one of them into practice without also observing the other. All other precepts depend on these two. Jesus is not the only one to assert the necessary and unalterable connection between them.
St. John, for example, will write: “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” (1 John 4:20). The Old Testament is very demanding when it comes to love of neighbour, and God shows that he is offended when people fail to attend to, and show love for, their neighbour. God is especially angered at a lack of love for the weak. To this group belong the foreigners in Israel; special concern is shown to them because Israel itself had once been in the same position. The widow and orphan are also among the weak; if Israel fails in love for them, the Lord will make those neglectful of them perish by the sword, leaving their wives widows and their children orphans.
An Israelite must show compassion to a fellow Israelite. Today’s passage instructs a person on how to act when lending money: one must lend it without interest and must quickly return any pledge given against the loan. The striking thing in all this is the way in which God enters the picture as soon as the neighbour is harmed. Without saying so explicitly, the text makes it clear that when one does wrong to one’s neighbour, one is also insulting God, and God will soon make his wrath felt. You cannot claim to love God while neglecting to love your neighbour, or to care for him when he is in need. You can also not have the love of neighbour without the love of God. Without the love of neighbour, the love of God remains a barren emotion; it remains an abstraction. And without the love of God, love of neighbour is only a refined form of self-love. St John says that if we do not love our neighbour whom we can see, how can we say that we love God whom we do not see. It is only the love of God that is expressed in the love of neighbour that will bring about our salvation, and guarantee peace for our troubled world. St. John puts succinctly when he says in 1John 4:16: “God is love and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in him.”
Prophet Micah says in Micah 6:8: “This is what the Lord requires of you, to do justice, love tenderly and walk humbly before your God.” Thus, the practice of justice is a necessary ingredient of our love for God. Looking at the recent happenings in our country, the spate of kidnappings, money rituals and insensitivity of the politicians in purchasing exotic cars for themselves at the detriment of the citizenry who are suffering from the harsh economic policies, can we say we truly possess the love of neighbour at heart. Do all these people have the love of God at heart? The circumstances of today in our country and elsewhere in the world challenge the Christian to let his or her faith take flesh. The situation on the ground should challenge Christians to take concrete steps towards expressing their love of God and neighbour in the particular circumstance of the day.
The situation calls for prophetic actions towards realising the liberation of the oppressed, the conversion of the oppressor, the empowerment of the poor, the practice of authentic religion, and ultimately, the salvation of all. As Christians we cannot pretend that all is well. We do have a responsibility in transforming the country from a less human to a more human society. Since the Lord Jesus calls us the light of the world, perhaps we can bring into the social realm of our country the light of love, truth, justice mutual forgiveness and human solidarity.