This is the commandment that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, '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 mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbour as oneself,' - this is much more important that all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.
At first sight, today's gospel seems to contain nothing that was not already known by the Jews of the Old Testament. Indeed the words, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind," were words imprinted on the heart of every Jew, and to this day they form part of the daily prayer a devout Jew is required to say. This prayer is referred to as the Shema, because it begins with the Hebrew words, "Shema Yisrael," meaning "Listen Israel." "Listen Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord," and it continues with the words just quoted. And yet, there is a certain paradox about today's gospel reading, in that it tells us that love of God is realised by our love for each other.
In other words, our love of God is illusory if it stops short with God, if it does not result in our loving each other, reaching out to everyone without exception, even our enemies. But then, a word of caution, love of neighbour, if it is divorced from love of God, can well become refined self love. For one can easily end up loving others purely for the response one gets from those loved, for the feeling of satisfaction and self-gratification one derives from being generous and kind to them. A Jewish Rabbi, named Hillel, a renowned scholar, a spiritual and ethical leader of his generation, who had a great following just before the birth of Christ, when asked, "Which is the greatest commandment?," gave the famous reply, "What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary."
Jesus, however, stated that love of God linked with love of neighbour jointly form the greatest commandment. Commenting on that, the advice of St Aug.ine was, "Love God first, and then do what you will," meaning that if we love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, then we cannot but be obedient to his will, which wants others to share in that love. St John, the evangelist, who saw all the events of Christ's life on earth in terms of love, and kept preaching about this virtue to the early Christians, to the extent that they became wearied of it, and asked him to talk about something else, St John in his first letter puts it forcibly like this, "Anyone who says, "I love God," and hates his brother, is a liar, for how can a man who does not love the brother that he can see, love God whom he has never seen. So this is the commandment that he has given us, that anyone who loves God must also love his brother" (1 Jn 4:20f).
If we embrace this commandment, if we try and put it into practice, as did the saints, then we will be doing something which is truly radical, which to the non-Christian outsider will often be seen as odd, a seeming contradiction, difficult to understand. These seeming contradictions abound in our faith. For we believe that life comes from death, that gain comes from loss, that receiving comes from giving, and that Christ had to die and come to life again that we might share a new life with him in heaven. We profess to be followers of Christ, who made a complete offering of himself to the Father - "Not my will but yours be done" - who gave his life, his energies, his time in the service of others, who returned to his Father devoid of any earthly goods - the clothes he had worn ceasing to be his before he yielded up his spirit, having being made over by lots into the possession of his executioners.
All this does not imply that we have to tread exactly the same path as Christ. What it does indicate, however, is that our surrender to God does not mean that we retreat into a paradise of unreal spirituality. It means that if we love God, then we have to concern ourselves with others, with the members of our family and community. It means that we must rise above ourselves, a and our own interests, and become convinced from the words of Christ that St Paul ,has given us, that "there is greater happiness in giving than in receiving" (Acts 20:35).
"The world is too much with us," wrote William Wordsworth, "late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." We pass this way but once, and while we are on our way let us do as much good as we possibly can with our God-given powers, the gifts that each of us has, in serving God and others. But always keep in mind as well the promise of Jesus (Jn 15:5), "Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty," and because of the presence of Jesus, this fruit will last.
Sacrifice is a common notion in everyday existence. We speak of people sacrificing themselves, their time, their energy, their lives. It is the most recurrent theme at November services of remembrance for those who died in war. Genuine sacrifice always promotes new life, as in the case of a mother who stays up all night to care for her ailing child. The sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary was like that. This is the central point of the Epistle to the Hebrews over the past and coming Sundays. The sacrifice of Jesus was all-sufficient because of the one who offered it, who was the perfect priest and also the perfect victim, perfectly human and humanly perfect. The Son of God and the Son of Mary. His sacrifice on Calvary and its acknowledgement by the Father in raising his Son from the dead to his right hand in heaven makes him a priest for ever. His sacrifice endures forever, He lives on in the heavenly sanctuary to make intercession for us.
The sacrifice and the intercession are symbolically represented on the altar in bread and in wine. Calling a thing symbolic it doesn't mean that it isn't real. In a sense it's more real than the surface reality. A shy lover who gives a rose to the loved one is saying more by the rose than he could express by word of mouth. The rose expresses and contains the reality of his love. It becomes a symbol.
By the words of Jesus himself the bread on the altar becomes his body that was broken for us, his blood that he shed for us. The bread and the wine are symbols expressing the reality of his sacrifice. Christ's sacrifice is made present by the power of God's Word. Neither are the words spoken out of the blue. They are spoken in the context of remembering, doing this in memory of him.
The reality of sacrifice is mentioned in all the Eucharistic prayers. It comes with the prayer of remembering which is the first one after the supper narration. In Eucharistic Prayer II, the celebrant says "In memory of his death and resurrection," and then adds: "we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup." Watch out for it in the other Eucharistic prayers and make the offering of yourself, of your life, "the living sacrifice of praise" along with the offering of Christ himself. What the Mass is all about is summed up in a terse phrase contained in one of the documents which followed on the Vatican II Liturgy Constitution. The Mass is described as "a memorial sacrifice and a meal."
"Complex," "authoritarian," "slow to adapt," are some inadequate ways of describing our church. We should declare more frankly that it's all about love, really, just as Moses so marvellously said. Cut to the core— get to the point! What is our religion really about? Well, the eternal, loving God has loved us into being, and wants us to love, in our turn, fully, unconditionally, with all our heart and strength. Jesus quotes Moses for the first half of his reply.. perhaps the deepest part.. but he stops us from sliding into false mysticism by adding part two: the daily application - loving the people right next door. It's a lifelong task, to love that next-door neighbour; a challenge to know how to do it, to re-start doing it, after a lapse. But it's part of the very soul of Christian living, and why we need our Eucharistic food.
So what is the purpose of human life? It's never been better expressed than in this double commandment that gets to the heart and soul of things. Many would welcome a word on the love principle applied to concrete examples, within their real-life contexts (family, work, neighbourhood, employer-labour relations, social involvement, school, church, citizenship, environment, and international issues of conflict and co-operation.) Married couples might also be glad if the "love as oneself" were applied to conjugal relations, family planning and dealing with conflict at home. But since next Sunday's readings treat of compassion and generosity, we might postpone most of the practical examples until then, and today focus on the ideal of love as the core of Christian morality.
"Which is the greatest commandment?" was a reasonable question for that Jewish teacher to ask of Jesus. In our Catholic tradition, we often feel the need for a simple guideline as to which doctrines are central, and which are relatively secondary. Without rejecting any Church teaching, we need to know which of them express the core of our faith.) Still more was a rule of thumb required in the Jewish tradition. Under a system which listed over six hundred religious laws and regulations, even the most earnest person would fail sometimes to keep them all. So it was vital to distinguish the main duties from purely trivial matters. In answer, Jesus combined the two highest commands of the Old Testament and gave them new force by relating them so closely to each other. There is no genuine love of God without love for our neighbour; and there can be no sustained love of neighbour without an underlying love for God.
How does the love principle interact with the Ten Commandments, which both Jews and Christians have long revered as expressing central moral concerns? Echoing Jesus, Paul would see the Decalogue as spelling Out some of the concrete implications of love; for "he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8). Still, that sentence cannot be simply reversed. There's a real shift of emphasis from the Decalogue's "Thou shalt not" to the Christian "Thou shalt." Of course we must refrain from murder, theft, adultery and lying under oath; but Jesus asks for much more than that, both by his own example ("love one another as I have loved you') and by the boundless compassion of the Good Samaritan about whom we are told: "Go and do likewise" (Lk 10:37). It is not enough to refrain from sin; we are to keep the commandments in a spirit of love.
But, is it possible to love God "with all your heart?" Or to cherish another as much as oneself? The love-command is not some regulation that can be simply monitored, and no one can say "I have kept it perfectly. What else is required of me?" Rather, it offers a target, an orientation, a yardstick against to measure the whole thrust of one's life-style and goals. Its fulfilment is only partial and provisional, always in need of renewal and reassessment. Jewish tradition tells of old Rabbi Eleazar, who bravely resisted the foreign king's decree that all Jews must conform to pagan ways. He was prepared to die a martyr, rather than submit by eating the prescribed piece of pork. His disciples tried desperately to save the old rabbi. Eleazar need only pretend to conform, in order to be spared a painful death. But he refused this way out. "All of my life," he said, "I have wanted to understand what this means, To love Him with all your soul and with all your strength. And now that I am on the point of finding out, wll you persuade me to draw back?'
At funerals, we discuss the encounters we have had with the deceased in order to capture something of their personality. On the grave-stone, too, we often try to express some great value that they cherished. What really counts in God's sight is, How much did they love? Wouldn't it be great if, when all the speeches are over, the final verdict on our life was, "Kind, thoughtful, devoted to others, committed to love."