Jesus’ powerful double-commandment
By Fr Mikhail Woodruffe O Carm
Earlier this year I was blessed to sit with a wonderful man who had recently regained his freedom after being unjustly imprisoned for 36 years for a crime he did not commit.
He said “if this State had the death penalty back then, I would be a dead man. I keep no malice. God is in charge. I love and forgive everyone.” His eyes showed that he meant it.
In today’s gospel, a law expert is contracted by the Pharisees to try to trap Jesus. He asks which is the greatest commandment of the Law. Each of the 613 Jewish commandments are equally binding: 248 positive (number of parts of the body) and 365 negative (days of the year).
Jesus starts His response by reciting the greatest and first commandment from Deuteronomy 6:5 “you must love the Lord your God…” These words form the central Shema Yisrael: ‘Hear O Israel’ prayer for Jews.
The phylacteries (small leather cases containing Jewish law texts) that Pharisees wore to remind them of the Law, included this commandment.
Jesus goes on to mention a second commandment, “you must love your neighbour as yourself” from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus says that this commandment “resembles” or is “like to” the first.
Jesus is lifting love of neighbour to equal importance with loving God. To love God is to love one’s neighbour: they are inseparable. Jesus does not create new commandments; both were established by God in the Old Testament. Jesus is committed to the whole Law and does not eliminate part.
The laws in the Exodus first reading today call for love through the protection of the most vulnerable with no protection in that society: foreigners, widows and orphans.
God created us to be His hands, feet, and eyes in the world (Carmelite, St Teresa of Avila). Who are the persons with no protection or care in our setting? Women who are abused and even murdered at the hands of jealous former male lovers; youth who identify as members of the LGBT community and are bullied and abandoned; Venezuelan immigrants who are dehumanised before we know their stories, T&T nationals stranded abroad without housing, finances or medical care. I am among the few blessed ones to have all my needs met by my Carmelite Order while still abroad and awaiting returning home. The list can go on and on.
We observe that “… whoever does not love a sister or brother whom they have seen- cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn 4: 20– 21)
In his newly published encyclical Fratellli Tutti, Pope Francis writes “neighbor… usually means those nearest us… of one’s own group and race… Jesus completely transforms this approach. He asks that we become neighbours to all… regardless of whether or not they belong to our social group” (80, 81).
We continue to hear cries for justice on local soil and in the United States, related to racism, violence, crime, corruption, and other injustices. Love of neighbour starts with our individual choice to seek justice: right relationship with God and neighbour, those close and those different to us.
All people are created in the image and likeness of God, ‘imago dei’. Love, agape, is self-sacrificing and is exemplified by God: God is love. Love is beyond feeling, is a covenant (hesed) and leads us to action.
To truly love is to see people as God does. It usually is easy to see God’s image and likeness in the beauty and innocence of a newborn child. Can we start seeing God’s image in the hardened criminal on death row?
God’s love is unconditional, unmanipulated, unmotivated and unlimited. To love as God does requires us to accept God’s love personally. We cannot give what we do not ourselves have.
Jesus’ powerful double-commandment calls us to humbly ask God to teach us to love ourselves as God loves us in our unworthiness. That can be a struggle at times for me. Then and only then can we “become imitators… of the Lord” (Thess 1:5–10).
Theologian Karl Rahner sums it up: “A person’s love for their neighbor is evidence of their love for God.”
The kind man whom I started this reflection on truly loves God and neighbour. Are you able to love Him or love as He loves?
The gospel meditations for October were by Fr Mikhail Woodruffe O Carm, a Trinidadian Carmelite friar who recently finished Carmelite formation in the United States.