One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The background of today’s gospel was the debate among the Jewish rabbis over the most important commandment of the Ten Commandments. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish rabbis spent most of their time expounding and examining the Mosaic Law. One of the undesirable results of this activity was that it focused entirely on mental gymnastics rather than on spiritual or religious uplift. There were a number of schools of thought among the Jews engaged in heated debates and discussions on which of the Ten Commandments was the most important.
This is also the same question that a Scribe puts to Jesus in today’s gospel. From the way that he asks Jesus, we can sense that the Scribe, who is unlike those Scribes and Pharisees trying to test Jesus, is honest and sincerely anxious to get an honest and true answer from Jesus.
Having sensed his honesty and sincerity of his question, Jesus gave him a frank answer that the two primary and essential commandments were to love the one true God and to love one’s neighbour as one loved oneself. To enable the Scribe to understand better, Jesus used the scriptures that the Scribe knew. Thus Jesus first quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5 for the first greatest commandment; and quoted Leviticus 19:18 for the second greatest commandment.
The Scribe, who recognized Jesus as a sound and sincere rabbi, accepted and approved the answer. Moreover, he recognized that Jesus confirmed the same conclusion that he had reached. So he went on to praise Jesus for emphasizing the oneness of the true God who has no equal or no contender for this position that this one and only God is to be loved with all the love of which man is capable.
Why Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”? This is because in Leviticus the commandment: “You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against, the members of your race, but will love your neighbour as yourself. I am Yahweh” (19:18) was binding on one Israelite in relation to his brother Israelite. In Christ’s mind, of which the Scribe is approving, neighbour meant not only a fellow-Jew, but any man, all man. Also, it is because the Scribe emphasizes that without true love of God and neighbour, the external signs of worship offered to God are useless.
Today’s gospel speaks loudly and clearly to all Christians that the solid foundation of our Christian religion is love of God and neighbour because our Lord says: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” All the other commandments are expansions of these two and indications of how we are to put these two commandments into daily practice.
The keeping of God’s commandments, the prayers of thanksgiving, praise and petition which daily we offer, the attendance at Mass and other liturgical functions, these are the means God gives us of showing our love, our recognition of total dependence on him and our gratitude for all he has done and is doing for us. To love God is not an obligation imposed on us by some demanding superior but a privilege granted us so that we can become worthy of the greater gifts he has in store for us.
Loving our neighbour is another most effective way of proving to God that we love him. Because of our common humanity we should be inclined to help our fellowmen, our neighbours. And the Christian law spiritualizes this natural inclination by commanding us to help our neighbour because he is God’s child. We are all fellow-children of God. Our heavenly Father loves each one of us and wants our salvation. If we love our common Father, we will do all we can to help his other children also to attain salvation.
If we observe these two commandments we are fulfilling the whole law and the prophets and we are serving God and showing our gratitude to him for all his goodness to us. Amen.