The question that Jesus is asked in the gospel today from Matthew 22 was a common one that the Rabbis of the day would be asked – “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Since in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, also called the Torah, the Rabbis had discerned a total of 613 commandments or mitzvot, there were many possible answers to this question. A mitzvah is a commandment – much more than a good deed or work that you can do. They were broken up into 248 positive prescriptions – things you must do, such as to keep holy the Sabbath and to honour your parents, take care of the poor; and 365 negative prohibitions – things that you shall not do, such as do not murder, do not steal and so forth.
Jewish teachers were often asked to summarise the law in a brief statement – some have said that it was a summary that you could say while standing on one leg. The answer that Jesus gives, drawn from chapter 6 in the Book of Deuteronomy – is also common. This commandment – to love the Lord your God with all your heart, life and strength – is not just among the things that the Jews were supposed to do. It was a central part of the daily prayer of every devout Jew morning, noon and night – a tradition that continues to this day. The prayer is called the Shema – from the Hebrew word to hear.
To this greatest commandment Jesus quickly adds another, taken from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19 – to love your neighbour as yourself.
Knowing the commandments – and living them are unfortunately often two very different things. Far too often we try to obey these commandments in our own strength. But when you see them in the light of the larger Gospel story of Jesus dying for the sins of the world and rising to bring new life – along with the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit to empower us to be changed – then these commandments become invitations and promises of a whole new way of life. When we live them like this, then bit by bit we can slowly allow our hearts to be transformed by his grace, so that all those bits of darkness – pride and hatred and impurity and selfishness – all of these things can be left behind and the love that lies at the heart of our faith can become a reality.
+Jesus, may we be caught up each day in your amazing story of love. Help us to receive your love by diving deeply into your love, so that we can live each day in the freedom to love you and love others. Amen.
** Please pray for me as I complete an Ignatian thirty-day retreat this week at the Jesuit Campion Center, in Weston, MA, USA, and then travel to Jerusalem. **