In my commentary on last week’s gospel reading, I spoke about the Incarnation and how difficult it is for us to conceive of a God who gets his hands dirty with human affairs. We’d much rather that God stay in his heaven and leave us alone. I ended by saying that if we can’t find God down here in the midst of our human existence, we’ll never find him “up there.” Today’s gospel reading is a direct consequence of the Incarnation. It spells out for us the greatest commandment—in other words, our religious responsibility. This is what’s required of us if we’re serious about wanting to serve God.
We’re so familiar with this gospel passage that it’s lost the shock value it must have had when Jesus first made this pronouncement. Without its freshness and novelty, it’s lost much of its impact. Familiarity has done us no favors. In Matthew’s version of this saying, which we read today, the questioner is a “scholar of the law”—in other words, a scribe. He asks Jesus this question in order to test him: “Which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Note that he asks about a commandment, not commandments. Jesus responds unsurprisingly with a text from Deuteronomy [6:4-5] called the Shema, which serves as a creed for the Jewish people: “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. You shall love Yahweh with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Jesus rightly comments that this is the first and the greatest commandment. In fact, this would be the only commandment, if not for the Incarnation.
You see, it’s at this point that Jesus parts company with all the rabbis of the past. No rabbi, no scholar of the law before this time had connected service of God with service to our fellows. Check out the Ten Commandments. Outside of the commandments dealing with God and the one requiring respect for our ancestors—“Honor your father and your mother”—all of the remaining commandments are negative: “You shall not…” But here, Jesus is proposing a positive commandment, connecting love of one another to love of God. He’s taking the secondary commandments that deal with messy interpersonal relations, raising them up, and putting them on an equal footing with love of God. And this isn’t just a commandment to do no harm to one another. We’re commanded to love one another actively, with an equal fervor to the way we love and care for ourselves. This isn’t just a suggestion, it’s one of the two “great” commandments that sum up the entire Bible (the Law and the Prophets). The suggestion is that you cannot “love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” unless you “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Once again, the pseudo-Christians in our midst fail to grasp the foundational importance of these two commandments and how they are interrelated. They’re the Incarnation in practice. For some inexplicable reason, the pseudo-Christians behave as though they can pick and choose which of their fellow human beings they can love and which they can ignore, yet they still believe that they’re loving God. If we’re followers of Jesus—if we are to call ourselves Christian—that’s something we cannot do.
I want to be clear about what the commandment to love entails. Let’s begin with a basic understanding of justice. Justice is the fundamental recognition of intrinsic rights. By “intrinsic,” I mean rights that derive from the nature of the being itself. These are what the forefathers of this country called “inalienable” rights. That means that these rights cannot be taken away without commensurate cause. For example, justice says one cannot deliberately take a human life unless one’s own life is in peril and there are no other viable options. To do otherwise would be unjust, and a crime we call murder. Justice requires us to respect all human rights. Prejudice and discrimination based on racial characteristics, sex, sexual orientation, sexual expression, national origin, ethnicity, religion, or language are crimes—and, yes, sins—against justice. Bigotry of any kind is by definition an injustice.
Now that we see what justice entails, let’s talk about love. Love picks up where justice leaves off. Merely respecting others’ rights is not enough to fulfill the commandment to love, any more than acknowledging the existence of God is sufficient to fulfill the commandment to love him with all your heart and soul and strength. Love wants for the other everything we want for ourselves. Love goes the extra mile. The commandment to love is indiscriminate. It binds us regardless of any extraneous factors. Nowhere does Jesus say, “Love your neighbor, unless…” No one needs to prove themselves “worthy” of our love. The bad news that derives from the Incarnation is this: if we fail to love our neighbor for any reason, we fail in our love for God…and there is no one who is not our neighbor.
This is where people are fond of interjecting, “Yes, but what if…” Let me ask a simple question. When does love try to get out of loving? What kind of love looks for an excuse not to love? You know what they say, “Love will find a way.” It’s our duty to find a way to love the unlovable. Being a Christian is neither easy nor convenient. Being a Christian means identifying and overcoming our prejudices. Being a Christian gets messy—because it’s part and parcel of the Incarnation: God’s presence in and with humanity. Today’s gospel reading is hard if we understand it properly. It’s very hard. It tells us it’s not enough to love God. It’s not enough to be “woke.” We’re commanded to love our neighbor. It’s not just a nice suggestion. It’s a requirement. It’s the only way we can truly love God and call ourselves Christians. “I give you a new commandment,” says the Lord Jesus, “love one another as I have loved you,” [John 13:34] without reserve, without excuse, without exception.