The Essence of the Gospel: Jesus’ Supreme Command to Love-Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Essence of the Gospel: Jesus’ Supreme Command to Love-Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Year A, Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 29, 2023

Year A: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

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The story we hear in today’s Gospel is profound and pivotal, significant in its content and implications for our understanding of faith and our relationship with God. “When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?'”1 

In the context of the Gospel, this story is part of a series of debates Jesus engaged in with religious opponents in the Jerusalem temple during the last week of his life. Over the past several weeks, we have heard various instances where Jesus’s authority was challenged; the Pharisees sought to entrap him with a question regarding taxes, and the Sadducees attempted to confound him with a query about the resurrection. 

The lawyer’s question, as posed in the Gospel, is a test, yet the nature of the test is not immediately clear. It lacks the straightforwardness of the Pharisees’ previous inquiry about the legality of paying taxes or tribute to the emperor, where a simple “yes” or “no” could have profound implications. Instead, this question is more open-ended, inviting a response beyond a simple affirmation or negation. 

In the text, we are reminded by Matthew that before this encounter, Jesus had successfully navigated the challenging question posed by the Sadducees – the priests who served at the Temple in Jerusalem. They had presented Jesus with a seemingly insurmountable question about the Torah, yet Jesus passed their test with flying colors. Now, it was the turn of the Pharisees. 

The stakes in this encounter are significantly high. The Pharisees, alarmed by Jesus’s growing influence over the masses, are keen to quell this burgeoning movement before it gains further momentum. Their question is not motivated by a genuine desire to learn but is a calculated attempt to trip up the rabbi from Galilee. 

In response to their question, Jesus offers a succinct encapsulation of his teachings and actions: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”2 

This passage from Matthew 22, which calls us to love God and our neighbor, is a message that resonates with urgency and relevance in our contemporary world. It serves as a crucial reminder of the foundational principles that should guide our faith and interactions with others. 

In abiding by these commandments, we are called to wholeheartedly devote ourselves to loving God with our heart, soul, and mind and extend the same kindness and consideration to our neighbors that we wish for ourselves. These are not mere guidelines but active directives that call us to live lives marked by deep commitment and compassion. 

The challenge of living out these commandments in a world often characterized by division and hatred cannot be overstated. The divisive forces that pervade our society can make it challenging to adhere to the principles of love and unity that Jesus espouses. Yet, in the face of such adversity, these commandments become even more vital and transformative. 

It is not uncommon for people to harbor a conception of God that is less than the One God of Scripture, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. There’s a tendency to craft an image of a small god, a god that conforms to our desires and provides comfort and justification for our actions. This small god essentially serves as a mascot, a convenient emblem that endorses our biases and privileges. 

Such an approach is a departure from the teachings of the One God, the Creator of all that exists, who extends love even to the least of God’s creatures. This God calls us to transcend our prejudices and privileges and embrace an inclusive and affirming faith. 

To love God in a divided world necessitates rooting ourselves in Christ and seeking wisdom and strength through prayer, worship, and spiritual reflection. This grounding provides us with fortitude and resilience to confront the hatred and division surrounding us. 

Likewise, loving our neighbor in a world rife with enmity calls us to resist the pull of divisiveness and to choose compassion, empathy, and understanding actively. This involves reaching across the divide, engaging with those different from us, and challenging the systems and structures perpetuating injustice and hatred. 

To love our neighbor as we love ourselves is to recognize the image of God in every person we encounter, extending love beyond the confines of our immediate circles and embracing all of humanity with open arms. 

Jesus’s invitation is clear: He calls us to see the truth that the law and the prophets are to be understood in the light of love. This is a new way of seeing, one that is rooted in learning and growth. 

Everything hinges on love. 

The love that Jesus speaks of cost him his life. The term used in the Greek text to describe this love is ‘agape.’ Agape love is a selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional love that seeks the well-being and happiness of others, regardless of their actions or behaviors. It is the highest form of love, transcending personal needs or desires and rooted in empathy, compassion, and a profound sense of interconnectedness with all beings. Agape love begins with God and His love for us. 

Jesus offers us a new way of seeing, a unique perspective that helps us navigate the complexities of life and love. He reminds us that clarity in this life is not derived from our roles or professions, whether we are lawyers, Pharisees, or priests, but through God’s mercy and grace. 

God provides us countless daily opportunities to align ourselves with God’s will. Each morning, as we witness the sunrise, we are faced with a choice: to take the beauty of a new day for granted or to express gratitude to God for the gift of life. In our daily interactions with the world around us, we can approach others with an open heart, ready to listen, learn, and, ultimately, love. 

The commandments to love God and our neighbors call us to transform our hearts, minds, and souls and work towards creating a world characterized by love, compassion, unity, and justice. They implore us to see others not as strangers, enemies, or outsiders but as beloved children of God, deserving of dignity, respect, and love. 

Our path forward is clear: we must anchor ourselves in Christ, drawing upon the wisdom and strength found in prayer, scripture, and the Eucharist. In doing so, God equips us to counteract the hatred and division that risk fragmenting our world. 

This call to love is not without its challenges. It requires us to step outside of our comfort zones, reach out to those different from us, and reflect on our own hearts and actions. It invites us to ask ourselves whether we are truly living out the commandment to love God and our neighbor and to evaluate the extent to which our lives reflect the teachings of Jesus. 

In addition, loving our neighbors as ourselves calls us to challenge and dismantle the structures and systems perpetuating inequality, injustice, and oppression. It requires us to be courageous in our pursuit of justice, standing up against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination that divide us and deny the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. 

As we reflect on this Gospel passage, we must ask ourselves: How are we living out the commandment to love God and our neighbor? Are our actions aligned with the teachings of Jesus, or are we merely paying lip service? The answer to these questions will ultimately determine our impact on the world around us and the legacy we leave behind. The commandment to love God and our neighbor is not a one-time act or something we can simply check off a list. Rather, it is an ongoing, lifelong journey that requires constant reflection, introspection, and action. It demands that we continuously strive to be better, to do better, and to love more deeply and fully. 

As we journey through life, let us remember the words of St. Paul, who reminds us that “the greatest of these is love.”3 Love is the foundation upon which all other virtues are built, and it is the guiding principle that should inform our thoughts, words, and actions. 

In conclusion, the commandment to love God and our neighbor is a powerful and transformative directive that can change our lives and the world around us. It calls us to cultivate a deep and abiding love for God, to extend that love to our neighbors, and to work tirelessly to create a world characterized by justice, compassion, and unity. By doing so, we become true disciples of Jesus, living out his teachings and following in his footsteps. 

As we go forth into the world, let us embrace this call to love with open hearts and open minds, and let us be mindful of the word attributed to St. John of the Cross: “Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.” When we put love and find love, we can truly transform our lives, communities, and world, and we can become beacons of hope, love, and light in a world often marked by darkness and despair. 

So, let our actions be a testament to the transformative power of love. Love with courage – love with conviction – and love with the full force of your hearts, minds, and souls. In that love, we find the essence of the Gospel and the remedy our broken world so urgently requires. Armed with agape love, we become part of a world where the walls of division crumble and the light of Christ shines. 

Amen. 

 

1 Matthew 22:34, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”) 

2 Matthew 22:36-37, NRSV 

3 1 Corinthians 13