Back in 1962, the much loved and much maligned theologian Karl Barth made his one trip to America. After giving a talk, a reporter asked Barth what he thought was the most profound of all theological truths. “But instead of giving some jargon-laden, academic answer that used words like perichoresis, kenosis, or the insuperable transcendence of God’s prevenient grace as it comes through the vicarious supererogation of the Son, Barth simply said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Barth was in good company when it came to giving the simplest of answers to the most profound questions. Over the last couple of weeks, we have heard some rather profound, or at least important and divisive, questions being asked of Jesus. Last week we heard the question about paying taxes, and we were told to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. The lectionary skips the second one, a question about marriage law extending into the afterlife, which Jesus essentially dismisses in order to give us a lesson about life after death, specifically that there is, no doubt, life after death. Today we get the third question, and this one really is profound.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” “It’s an innocent-looking question but really it is a stealth attempt to make Jesus look like a theological liberal. If Jesus picked out any of the Bible’s commandments and elevated it to the status of #1, that would imply that he was treating everything else as second-class. If you are the father of five children and one of them asks you who your favorite kid is, a wise father says, “I love you all the same.” No good parent wants any child to feel like he or she plays second fiddle to the other siblings.”1 Jesus was in the same trap; the Pharisees think that if they can get Him to proclaim one commandment as most important, they can trick Him into heresy and condemn Him.
But Jesus knew what He was doing, of course, and we hear His answer every time we’re at Mass. We say “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith,” but Jesus was actually quoting (almost, because He tweaked it) is from the book of Deuteronomy. The Jews themselves called it the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Jesus and everyone around Him that day would have recited that verse twice a day, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. There wasn’t a single verse in all of Scripture that Jews knew better than this one. Jesus threw the basis of all things Jewish right back at the most Jewish of questioners.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” But Jesus didn’t stop there: “And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” In the Mass, this is called the Summary of the Law, because these are the top commandments and all the others only add up to aid us in keeping those two. Love of God, love of neighbor.
I find it interesting that these are outwardly focused commandments. There’s nothing here about seizing the day or self-esteem, nothing about finding yourself or becoming one with the universe. These two commandments are the antithesis of every book in the self-help section of the bookstore (and the business section, for that matter). These two commandments are not the sum of the Christian Faith, but they are the sum of how we should live out that Faith.
That sum is love. How do we love God? By making Him first, by making His will for your life your will for your life. By acknowledging His worth, that is by worshiping Him, crediting Him for everything, even your very life. By acknowledging that what He has commanded us to do is not arbitrary but for our good, and then doing those things which He commanded us to do. How do we love our neighbor? By wanting the best for them. Jesus doesn’t say anything about liking everybody, but He did tell us we must love everybody, which means putting away the little stuff that keeps us from loving our neighbor and praying that everyone, even the annoying people, find the love we have found in the Lord. It means wanting for them what we would want for ourselves, and then, when the occasion arises, doing something about that. It means that when we smile to ourselves while singing “Jesus loves me, this I know,” absolutely wanting everyone to know that same love. So hear today what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, and then go let everyone know what you’ve heard.
1.Scott Hoezee, This Week