In our Gospel today, Jesus condenses the whole Gospel message into the love of God and love of neighbour. These constitute the meaning of life, the secret to happiness, and the path to eternal life.However, since God is invisible, the concrete measure of our love for him is the way we love and treat those around us whom we can see. The notion of love is a largely misunderstood one today as it means different things to different people. Very commonly, we tend to confuse the concepts of liking and loving. Liking is a function of the utility derived from the object/person – like the taste of ice cream or the pleasure of sport. In contrast, true love as intended by Jesus is for the sake of the beloved and not for what is in it for us.
The story is told of a nun who was nursing a patient in the advanced stages of leprosy, with very rotten skin and the foul smell of decomposition. The woman took care of the patient with outstanding tenderness and compassion and did not seem to mind the horrible impact of the disease on him. In the hospital at the time was a visitor who stood and watched from a safe distance. After the treatment, the shocked and disgusted visitor went to the nun and said: “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you just did for a million dollars.” Smiling, the nun said in reply: “Neither would I.” The difference is not in the benefits gained but in the love. True love for our brethren is not a function of how much we like them or what we can get back from them. A transactional attitude to love cannot endure and will not lead us to the true self-giving that Christian love involves. Only a supernatural love flowing from the heart of God, in whose image our neighbour is made, will suffice. This is the way God loves us, so much that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Responding to the scribe on what the most important commandment is, Jesus takes him back to the Book of Deuteronomy where Moses preached fidelity to God, so that the people might enjoy prosperity in the Promised Land: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”(Deut.6: 4). This is the “Shema” prayer, which is central in the Jewish prayer book and is often the first section of Scripture that a Jewish child learns – including Jesus and even the scribe. The people are to love the Lord with all their heart, soul and strength – the totality of their being. We Christians too express the Shema in the liturgy when we sign our forehead, lips, and chest at the announcement of the Gospel – that we may absorb the Word of God, proclaim it, and ponder it in our hearts.
Jesus joins the Shema (from Deuteronomy)to a verse from Leviticus (the Book on the Priesthood), on the need to “not seek revenge or bear grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).He combines the two to form a new commandment on love. In uniting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the Lord is uniting the Law and the Priesthood in himself. He is the new Lawgiver, and the holy, innocent, and uncontaminated High Priest that the Letter to the Hebrews points out in the Second Reading. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of the love of God and love of neighbour. He lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father; and for love of neighbour, he proved with himself the teaching that there is“no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Unlike the rich young man, a few weeks ago, who went away dejected because he could not give up his wealth for the love of neighbour, the scribe today agrees that loving God and neighbour is far superior to holocaust or sacrifice. And for this, Jesus affirms that the man is “not far from the kingdom of God.” For Jesus, the love of God and love of neighbour are no longer separate realities but two aspects of one reality. One could not possibly love God while hating their neighbour or vice versa. As St John says, “anyone who does not love his brother or sister whom they can see cannot love God, whom they cannot see.” (1 John 4:20) Thus, the love of God becomes inseparably bound with the love of neighbour; and this unity determines our nearness or otherwise to the kingdom of God. And who is our neighbour? Jesus provides the answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 24-37).
So how can we love God and our neighbour? Desiring what God desires is the heart. Valuing and understanding things the way God does is the mind. And choosing what God would choose in our place is the soul. On the other hand, we must treat others the same way we would like to be treated, regardless of the cost of doing so. This is at the core of Christian love, a courageous lifestyle that puts God first, others second, and self – third. God is love and the source of all love, and we could never truly love others outside of God. To the extent that we keep the commandment of today, to that extent we are closer to the kingdom of heaven. And to the extent that we are failing to keep it, to that extent we are far from the kingdom of God. And so, let us pray today for the grace and power to love others, especially those we do not like and those who do not deserve any favours from us. And let us spare a moment to ask ourselves today how near or far we are from the Kingdom of God.