In responding to the scribe’s question, Jesus would have probably drawn Himself up, taken a deep breath, closed His eyes, and began, “Shema yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad….” What Jesus says is something that every Jew would have learned and known since childhood – basic knowledge, the equivalent of the “Our Father” in Judaism. The full prayer is found in Deuteronomy, and we hear the beginning of it in the First Reading:“HEAR, O ISRAEL: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
These words have weight, they have their own gravitational pull in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people – and even to us who profess faith in the one God. The “first of all the commandments,” as we hear the scribe and Jesus say today. The first of the commandments is love.
But wait a minute.
A command? A command … to love???? How can this be? No one can tell me whom to love, let alone command it. After all, love is love – I feel it or I don’t, right? Well, this would be true if love were simply a feeling, an emotion.
However, in the Christian perspective (and this goes back even to the Jewish tradition), love is more than just a movement of the heart or a feeling. Love is an action – a movement of the will. In other words, it is a choice; it is intentional, and we do have control over it. Therefore, we are commanded by God to love Him. We are also commanded to love our neighbor. As Jesus replies to the scribe, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” It doesn’t get any more basic.
If love is more than just a feeling for us Christians, then we cannot fall back on excuses not to love. We have been commanded by God to love, and we must choose whether we are going to follow that command or not. This is why so many people turn to Christians and to the Church for help: they know that we are people who are commanded to love; how could we not show the lost compassion? How could we not show the outcast welcome? How could we not show the least that they matter?
Too often we give ourselves passes – when we might ignore someone in need of this Christian love. Maybe we say that we connect with God on another level – by some other feeling. We pray. We show up for Mass. We know our faith. However, if we are doing any or all of these things and are not regularly choosing to love, we are no sort of Christian. As St. Paul powerfully states, “If I have all faith so that I could move mountains, but I do not have love, I am nothing.” The religious scrupulosity of the scribe could be seen as a barrier to that sort of love – that charity that is God. But when he responds to Jesus that this love of God and neighbor is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices,” Jesus knows that he is not far from the very heart of what it means to be a child of God.
You and I are heirs to this command. We are the children who have been taught diligently by our forebears, who have been constantly reminded that God is one and is to be loved about all things. We have been taught to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” These words are in our minds and in our hearts. They must also be in our hands, eyes, feet, and mouths. People must know us by our love and by that love alone. It’s that simple – but it’s not easy. If it were only a feeling, we could be excused when the feeling fades. However, love is the basic disposition of the Christian. It is our DNA. Therefore, we must choose to love – every moment, in every interaction, even with our enemies and people who don’t like us.
When we make that choice – the choice to love – we are not far from the kingdom of God.