The opening line of a poem by the late Mary Oliver could have been taken from Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel: “My work is loving the world.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
One of the Pharisees asks Jesus to name “the greatest commandment of the Law”. This incident is one of the so-called ‘controversies’ recorded by Matthew, where, in true Jewish form, Jesus debates aspects of Jewish teaching with Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Over these last weeks, we have heard some of these discussions. Here, a lawyer approaches Jesus, addressing him as “Master”. The title seems respectful but there is an agenda – the Pharisees are trying to catch out Jesus.
Motive notwithstanding however, there is nothing particularlyunacceptable or remarkable in this question. Jewish tradition holds that there are 613 commandments in the Torah – both positive and negative (dos and don’ts) – governing all aspects of life. Discussion and debate regarding these are part and parcel of Jewish life. Asking about the greatest commandment is not a sign of a reductive attitude to the many precepts that comprise the Law, nor a dismissal of the other 612. Rather, in looking for one law that underpins the Law in its entirety, this expert in religious law is seeking to discover its essence.
Jesus’ reply does just this, going to the heart of Jewish faithand pointing out clearly and succinctly what being in relationship with God means and what this asks of believers.His answer is simple: “You shall love”. Combining a line from the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5) – a prayer so frequently recited that those Jews listening knew it by heart – with one of the many commandments God gave to the people of Israel through Moses (Leviticus 19:18), Jesus offers paired commandments to love: “You shall love the Lord your God … you shall love your neighbour”.
Two sides of the same coin, these are distinct yet inseparable from one another. Both are equally vital aspects of covenant relationship with God. Relationship with God – even loving God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” – creates room for, and indeed demands,relationship with others – loving them “as yourself.” The one thing necessary then is to love and on these double commandments everything else depends: “on these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.”
What Jesus teaches is neither new nor controversial. Yet, it is expressed with a clarity and freshness that ought to be compelling, not only for Jesus’ hearers then but for us too. The Gospel is proclaimed each Sunday because this teaching is for today. If really heard, it will shake us up and prompt us to more. Does it?
Like those listening in Jerusalem, we know these words well. While not breeding contempt, their familiarity may lead to our taking them for granted, listening but not hearing, so that theyhave no real impact on our lives. This cannot be – we must take what Jesus says seriously. If we are in relationship with God, believers in and, by extension, wholehearted lovers of God, our task is to love and wholeheartedly – Love expectslove in response. Without distinction and with all of our being – heart, soul, and mind – we are to love God and all that God loves – all of God’s creation and all who inhabit it.
How does this speak to a time of pandemic? In these days and weeks and months, how can we commit to this living of covenant relationship and of faith in God? How can thatsustain us? Perhaps small concrete actions can act as reminders. As a way of bringing today’s Gospel with us during this week, we might pray as we make small gestures of solidarity and love.
– pray the Shema while washing your hands or donning your mask?
– pray for protection as you leave the house or apply hand sanitiser?
– pray for strangers you encounter during your day?
– pray for those who don’t follow the recommendations?
The Jewish custom of hanging a mezuzah (a little box containing the Shema) on the doorpost and the Catholic tradition of placing a holy water font inside the front door are not dissimilar. These also are reminders of God with us and of our vocation to bring God with us throughout our daily comings and goings.
Taking these reminders to heart, we can live our work of loving. Even if we may be inclined to lose heart and to lose hope, we cannot lose love or let go of the call to love. While we may feel very small and ineffectual in the vastness of this worldwide crisis, our actions are not in vain – our seemingly small gestures of love are not at all small.
A video from Northern Ireland that went viral in March pointed this out: “What you are seeing is love in action …look into the emptiness and marvel at all of that love. Let it fill you and let it sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world – it is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness” (https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/watch-belfast-covid-19-response-team-urges-public-to-see-empty-streets-as-love-in-action-39078067.html).
Let us remember: Our work is loving! Sr Eileen O’Connell OP