Sunday of Week 30 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40

“Love and do what you like” is a statement attributed to the great St Augustine. He did not say “Do what you like”, rather he said, “Love, and do what you like.” The word ‘love’ changes the meaning of the statement completely. We have a similar theme in today’s Gospel. It touches on the very heart of the Christian message and indeed of all human living.

We are at a stage in Matthew’s Gospel these weeks where Jesus is being challenged by various leading groups among the Jews. Jesus had just reduced a group of Sadducees to silence, much to the delight of their rivals, the Pharisees. Now it is some Pharisees who approach him with their own question, a question much debated among themselves: “Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Unlike other encounters, there is not necessarily any malice in this approach. As a Rabbi, influential with the crowds and known by many as someone with a mind of his own, Jesus’ opinion was of great interest to them.

There were over 600 different laws, and much time was spent in arguing over trivial details of observance. This question is about getting to the very heart of the matter. Among so many laws, was there any one law which touched the core of people’s relationship with God? Was there one which summed up what the other laws were trying to say?

One plus one equals one
Jesus often answered people’s questions with one of his own but in this case he gives an answer. And he cites not one law but two. He first quotes the book of Deuteronomy which says:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut 6:5)

Jesus says this is the “first and greatest commandment”. Probably Jesus’ hearers would have had no problem agreeing with that. He then goes on immediately to say:

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

For Jesus’ listeners, this commandment would have been seen very much as a secondary requirement. And, as we know, the word “neighbour” could be taken in a highly restricted sense. The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel indicates that Jesus had a very different understanding of who our neighbour is, although it is not raised here.

Concern for people
God’s special concern for people and not just for worship of Himself is already expressed in a telling sentence from today’s First Reading, taken from the Book of Exodus. Compassion and sympathy are to be shown in particular to the stranger, the widow, the orphan:

If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry…

Further, money lent to the poor should not require interest; a garment taken as a pledge must be given back before sunset if that is all its owner has to cover himself with during the cold night:

If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry…

Undoubtedly many people would have felt little compunction in not doing these things to people they regarded of no account provided they themselves were fulfilling all their direct obligations of worship of God in terms of prayer, fasting, alms-giving and other ritual observances in temple, synagogue, and home. Jesus, echoing what the Old Testament already is saying, affirms that religious observance is not enough.

Jesus was making a significant change in linking these two commandments together as one and inseparable. From the rest of the New Testament, it is clear that one cannot love God without loving one’s brothers and sisters at the same time. Nor does one love others just for God’s sake or to please God or observe a commandment. One is expected to go much further. One does not go to God through others but one seeks, finds and loves God in others:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me. (Matt 25:40)

Jesus identifies himself with the hungry and thirsty, with the naked, the sick and those in prison (irrespective of their crimes). Jesus identifies himself with those in most need of love and compassion. He is also to be loved in the leper (nowadays the victim of socially-transmitted diseases, the alcoholic, the drug addict, the homeless), the outcast – and even in the enemy who threatens me.

A way of life
These “commands” to love God and those around us are not really commands. Love is not love unless it is free and spontaneous. What Jesus proposes are not just commands or rules but a whole approach to life and to our relationships with others.

There is only one “commandment” consisting of two inseparable parts. The key word is “love” but there are really three loves involved: love of God, love of others and love of self. Ultimately, love of God, the source of all being and life, comes first. Then comes, as a natural outcome, love for all those in whom God dwells and whom God creates. Because they are the objects of his love, they must also be the objects of mine. Lastly, there is the love of self. I also am worthy of being loved.

Turning things round
Strangely enough, to implement these loves effectively, we may have to reverse the order to: love of self, leading to love others, leading finally to love of God.

In a way, the most basic love is love of myself. Today’s Gospel says:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

On the one hand we might think this is an unnecessary command. What people do not love themselves, think about themselves, worry about their welfare? At the same time, we have been taught many times to not be loving ourselves, to not be selfish and self-centred. And it seems that a great many people do not really love themselves very much at all. Quite a number actually hate themselves and a large number have a low level of self-esteem. They do not like very much what they see in the mirror.

Many secretly dislike themselves and would dread people getting to know them as they see themselves. Why do we spend so much money on clothes, make-up, appearance, image? The cosmetics business is a huge industry involving billions of dollars. Why do so many chase various status symbols to show that they have “arrived”? The part of the city in which I live, the model of my car, my clothes and accessories – all carefully chosen to enhance my image and make me look better than I feel I really am. So much of advertising is directed to this inner fear.

Why are we afraid to let others know what we are really like? Why are we so shy to stand up in front of a crowd or ask questions at a meeting or make a speech? Why do people go around looking for status symbols that will make them seem more important in society?

We know the obsession of many people for “famous brands”. A story is told that a man had a suit made at a shop known for making inexpensive suits. When he went to collect it, the tailor pulled open a drawer with all the most famous labels. “Which one would you like?” he asked. So the man walks out wearing a cheap suit, but with the prestigious label conspicuously sewn to the cuff. Did he walk taller because of that? What about the phoney expensive-brand watches they sell on sidewalks in some big cities?

Why do so many try to be one of the crowd? Why do so many escape into alcohol and drugs? Why do so many, especially the young, even destroy themselves by taking their own lives? In a world of plenty, of endless means of entertainment and pleasure, why is the level of teenage suicides so high? Ultimately, it is because so many people do not or cannot love themselves – and sadly, they think that no one else really loves or could love them either.

Loving others
If we have difficulty loving ourselves, it will be difficult to reach out in love to others. We will be too busy worrying whether others are loving us, or at least the facade we present to others. And indeed that is the case. Individualism is rampant. Freedom means “doing one’s own thing” and to hell with everyone else, except for that small number around them who enhance their self-esteem.

It even affects the way we often behave in church, having very little sense of community. How many of the people around you – at church or in your neighborhood – do you know? And what have you ever done for any of them? And what have they ever done for you?

When I love myself, I accept myself totally as I am, recognising both my good qualities and my deficiencies and making no effort to hide them from others. I do not really mind what people think of me. That is really their problem, not mine. And, because of that, I have plenty of time to think of them and their needs. Then I have the freedom to reach out and be concerned with the well-being of others. In short, I can begin to love my neighbour as I love myself and because I love myself.

Loving God
And then there is the question of loving God. Saying “I love you God” is one of the easiest things in the world. But it is difficult to speak realistically of loving God, if I have no real experience of what love is, or of loving and being loved by people. Only then can I begin to see that God is present in all truly loving experiences. It has been said, “wherever there is love, there is God.” My whole life can be lived in a sea of love, given and received.

Then the commandment of Jesus begins to be realised. I begin to be aware that when I am being deeply loved by another person, it is in fact also God’s love that I am experiencing. “Where there is love, there is God” – all real love is a manifestation of God’s presence.

Most of the time, God shows his love for me through the people that enter my life. He loves me when they love me; and I am loving him when I love them. In the end, there are not three kinds of love but only one.

This person – this me – with all my strengths and weaknesses, this person with whom I have learnt to be perfectly comfortable, lives a life of loving and being loved. At the centre of it all is the source of all love – God.

Finally, we need to say that this love is not necessarily an emotional and romantic love. It is a love, as the First Reading indicates, which involves treating every single person with deep respect, with justice, with compassion. It reaches out even to those who behave badly or wish to harm me. It is a deepdown desire that wishes that every person experience what is the very best for them. It is a way of relating to people that helps them also to become more caring and loving – of themselves, of others, and of God. As Paul tells the Thessalonians today:

…you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord…

That is the core of all evangelisation. It is not just a question of “converting” people and getting them to the baptismal font to become Catholic. It is rather gently to lead them so that they find the God who loves them and find God in loving those around them.

What I am to myself becomes what I am to others and vice versa. And together we all go to God as he comes to us – in love.

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