Matthew 22: 34-40
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is frequently involved in confrontational situations. This reflects the tensions in the church of Antioch between conservative Jewish Christians and more liberal converts from among the Gentiles. The Pharisees in this gospel represent in some sense a conservative position that emphasizes observance of the law. They want to draw Jesus into their own interminable and sterile disputes about the relative importance of their numerous and detailed legal minutiae.
Jesus responds by quoting the essence of that great text from Deuteronomy (Chapter 6: verses 5 and 6) which as been justly called the heart of Israel’s covenant commitment. In fact, when devout Jews today attach a mezuzah to their door posts, it contains this very text. And it does indeed sum up the divine revelation of the Old Testament. Its importance, therefore, can scarcely be overemphasized.
We all recognize the importance of rules of conduct in our society. The alternative is chaos and the cruel law of sheer power. Laws are often derived from the accumulated wisdom of society. We have learned from hard experience that there can be no real freedom without an order that protects rights and assigns obligations.
At the same time, there are laws that are based on divine revelation and which we may very well not be able to discover by our own wits. The law that Jesus calls the first and greatest of all laws belongs to this category, It has two parts: love of God and love of neighbor.
Love of God always presupposes a prior experience of God’s goodness, and God offers most of us abundant evidence of such goodness, usually mediated through the kindness of others and the beauty of creation. Nonetheless, the awareness of divine goodness may seem to disappear at times, such as at 9/11 or in the terrible consequence of Katrina. Love of God then becomes trust, which is especially pleasing to God, for even among humans it is a rare and precious gift. The experience of God’s goodness that makes such trust possible causes us to be intensely aware of the gratuity of divine love. The proper response to such a discovery is wonder and gratitude.
Love of one’s neighbor is profoundly influenced by one’s loving relationship with God, because such human love, at its best, is also gratuitous. The other person is not loved simply because he or she is attractive. Rather, this love comes from the goodness of the one who loves and reaches out instinctively to anyone who is in need. After all, God did not love the Hebrew slaves in Egypt because they were beautiful or cultivated but simply because he is good and they were in desperate need. Such unconditional love, even among humans, creates freedom, confidence and beauty. A person who is loved in this way acquires an inner beauty, which manifests itself by a special personal sparkle. Perhaps that is because, even among humans, such love is really divine.
Father Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B.
Image: Mezuzah Scrolls.