Matthew 22:34-40 | 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
An Unspoken Assumption of the Greatest Commandment
A few years ago, I read A Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. It was a sometimes comical and sometimes poignant look at the efforts of one man to observe all 613 commandments in the Old Testament. His TED talk on the subject is fascinating, especially when he, an agnostic, ends with the observation that Scripture is valuable only to the degree that we “really engage it or wrestle with it.” In other words, God doesn’t want a “yes man or woman”; He wants us to own our commitment to Him.
God sent Jesus because He knew we couldn’t keep 613 commandments, and He knew that as long as those 613 commandments were the law of the land, we would keep trying to adhere to them and we’d keep failing. Our focus would be on our failure, and in frustration, we’d lash outward looking for others would had also failed. In an attempt to make ourselves feel better, we’d rank failure. Instead, we’d stay mired in frustration because we’d never be able to fix it so we come out on top.
It wasn’t that the 613 commandments were necessarily bad. But they enabled people to avoid “engaging” and “wrestling” with Scripture themselves. They allowed for a top down approach: Obey and life is good. Disobey? Expect the wrath of God.
So Jesus took our very human experience and boiled it down to its essence. Instead of 613 commandments, He gave us just two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…and the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v.38). By reducing the law to its most basic level, Jesus also gave us the responsibility to figure out what that means and how to apply it in our everyday lives.
Interestingly, in Jesus’s revised commandment, it’s implied that we are commanded to love ourselves first. We can’t love our neighbors the way Jesus intends if we don’t love ourselves. He knows we’re not perfect. He’s not looking for perfection. He’s looking for a healthy respect for ourselves, which includes the ability to admit our weaknesses and the willingness to work on them. Then, He expects us to extend that same grace to our neighbors. If we attempt to do all that, we more than engage and wrestle with Scripture. We own it. It becomes ours, and we develop a very personal relationship with our Father.
That’s what God wants, a real relationship with us, one where we own our failings and love Him enough not to fear that admission. One where we return to Him because of His unconditional love. If we believe that of God, then we know that His love and acceptance are the only things that can propel us both forward in our relationship with God and back into the real world where we can put His love into action. Only then have we owned the responsibility and freedom given to us in the sacred Scriptures.