Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34
The scribe in today's Gospel is quite straightforward and sincere in his question to Jesus. He does not seem to be out to deceive the Lord or to trap him into an error. And so he asks: Which is the first of all the commandments?
Perhaps touched be the scribe's sincerity Jesus answers in an equally forthright manner, quoting Deuteronomy: This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.
This is the first. Jesus is not giving any options here. This is not the first commandment under certain circumstances; this is not the first commandment unless you think you might prefer to substitute another; this is not the first commandment for some but not for others. This is why Jesus says: Listen, Israel.... In other words, listen all of you - priest and layman, teacher and pupil, rich and poor, married and single- every single one of you.
The Lord our God is the one Lord.... There is only one God and one God alone.
With these words Jesus captures our attention and has us all looking in the same direction; all faces turned to the one Lord, the one God, our one and only heavenly Father. And Jesus' face, too, is turned to him, indeed, it never ever looks away. Jesus' eyes are always on the Father.
Quite spontaneously, quite naturally, even before Jesus says anything more (if our eyes are truly on the Father), we find the first movements of love already being drawn from our hearts. We find ourselves making a deep sigh, taking a deep breath, as we gaze with our wounded, longing hearts at the one who created us; the one who breathed life into our souls, the one who loves us with all his divine being.
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.
We are not accustomed to being commanded to love. We tend to think of love as a kind of volatile sentiment over which we have little or no control. It can overflow like lava from a volcano or evaporate like the morning dew. But we are wrong. Sentiment is not the heart of love.
Love is essentially a decision, a free and noble exercise of the will, and for this reason the Evangelist John is able to equate it definitively with keeping God's commandments. He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. (Jn 14:21)
An added dimension of all this, whose wisdom and power I have come to appreciate more and more over the years, is that the love of God we show as Catholic Christians must necessarily be expressed in the Church through faithfulness to Sunday liturgy and the other sacraments.
We have a terrible tendency today to reduce love of God to the second great commandment: love of neighbour. 'Oh, Father, I don't go to Church, I just help out in St Vincent de Paul or the Rotary Club. So long as we are good to one another I think God will be happy with us.' Like all heresies, this tendency takes a portion of the truth and inflates it into the whole truth.
There is no greater act of love of God than to celebrate the Eucharist, and to celebrate it faithfully, every Sunday, indeed, it is a solemn obligation. And yet, it is nothing short of a glorious tribute to God's humility and love for us that he wishes that even the Eucharist should occasionally yield to the needs of a sick child or husband.
To hold the two commandments separately AND together is extremely difficult. Jesus states them separately but cannot mention the first without at once affirming the second. As one commentator said, 'They are two horses pulling the one carriage.'
The real problem, I suspect, with love of God and neighbour is the one which Adam and Eve's transgression brought into the world - a divided heart.
To love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength seems more a statement of ideal than a reachable goal. And yet the saints prove otherwise. It can be done with two ingredients working together - our desire and God's grace.