This reflection is based on Matthew 22:34-40.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s what I’m thinking too: These are two impossible commandments the Lord gives us.
When our Lord is asked in the Gospel about the single greatest commandment, he gives not one but two answers. He says: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
And as though that’s not hard enough, Jesus adds: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I remember giving a retreat as a young novice many years ago, where I talked about love of God and used this line that I had stumbled into and really liked: “We ought to love God as the first without a second.” I thought the phrase “To love God as the first without a second” perfectly captured precisely what our Lord was trying to tell his listeners in the Gospel today: to love God in nothing less than an absolute way.
I remember the silence that enveloped the room as soon as I delivered what I thought was such a profound and dramatic line. Frankly, I was quite impressed with myself! That is, until someone among the retreatants blurted out loud: “That’s impossible!”
And everyone–including myself–laughed because it was probably what everyone must have been thinking. That remark, however, led to a refreshingly open and frank discussion about what loving God means, and allowed the retreatants to share their issues and difficulties in a way that was quite helpful for everyone.
But the question remains: What was the Lord thinking in giving us such an impossible commandment? Actually, this greatest of commandments is a direct quotation from the book of Deuteronomy–and a quite familiar one to our Lord’s listeners, as it constitutes the Jewish morning prayer called the Shema. Upon rising in the morning, every devout Jew begins the day by reciting this prayer: “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is Lord alone. Therefore, love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
It is a daily reminder of our call to put God as “the first without a second.” After all, that is what it means to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength! But as that retreatant so frankly reminded us, it is a virtually impossible thing to do for us humans. Perhaps that is why our Lord immediately appended to it a second commandment, “To love our neighbor as ourselves.” The Lord is not really giving us a second commandment, but giving us a feasible way of fulfilling the first, seemingly impossible commandment. If you want to love God absolutely, love your neighbor as you love yourself.
It’s still not easy, but maybe more doable. It’s an invitation to live out the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” If the first commandment sounds impossible, this one sounds deceptively simple. I think we have to remember three important things here:
First, for Jesus, the term “others” here includes our enemies, whom on another occasion in the Gospel, our Lord asks his disciples to love. The more we are able to love our enemies (which of course includes that very difficult and painful task of forgiving them), the more absolutely we are able to love God.
Secondly, we also mustn’t forget that by “loving” others, what Jesus means is being a compassionate and helpful neighbor, as our Lord has illustrated in that Parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable, if you recall, told in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Loving here is much more than lip service; it’s to be expressed in action. And the more inconvenient and costly it is, as it was for the Good Samaritan, the greater and deeper the loving.
Finally, here’s something else to think about. The Golden Rule is, of course, Jesus’ improvement on the Silver Rule, which is: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” It’s not just about avoiding hurting or harming others, but doing something positive for them. But aside from the Golden and Silver Rules, let’s not forget the Platinum Rule, also from Jesus. It goes like this: “Love others as I have loved you.” Words from our Lord on the eve of his death at the Last Supper. It is a higher call: To love others as our Lord has loved us. It is a more absolute way of loving our neighbor–and of loving God. There is no greater love.
And so, today our Lord does hand us what is virtually an impossible commandment, but he also furnishes us with the means to achieve that end. As long as we keep trying to love others, treating them as we would have them treat us and doing for them as we would like them to do for us, we won’t be falling too short of the absolute loving of God that we are commanded to do. And maybe on certain graced moments, we may actually learn to love others as the Lord loves us.