When he is asked which commandment in the law is the greatest, Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The two-fold commandment lies at the heart of Christian life. When Jesus addresses the question, which a raised by a “scholar of the law” who is “testing” him, he joins the love of God with the love of neighbor.
He begins by quoting the Shema from the Book of Deuteronomy (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5). This law was so important to the Jews that they were to “keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).
The love of neighbor was important as well. The first reading for today’s Mass comes from the Book of Exodus, which exhorts the faithful to care for the most needy among them – foreigners, widows and orphans. So vital is this command that the Lord himself will avenge them if they are neglected.
In calling his people to charity, he directs them to remember that they too “were once aliens … in the land of Egypt.” Jesus unites the two commands when he states that the second is like the first. As a result, if one professes to love God while failing to care for the poor and needy, that claim is a false one. The obverse is likewise true. The two laws go hand-in-hand; they can be distinguished, but not separated.
Jesus lived the law of love. He had compassion for those who were sick, both physically and spiritually. Think of the many people who came to him for healing. He cured the woman with the hemorrhage, the man born blind, the man unable to get into the healing waters of the pool of Siloam, the man whose friends lowered him from the roof because the crowds were too great below, and many more.
He had pity on the widow of Nain, raising her son from the dead. He forgave the woman caught in adultery. He had mercy on tax collectors and sinners, with whom he was known to associate. He corrected the Pharisees when they tried to block the children from coming to him. He healed the centurion’s servant. He invited both Jew and Gentile to faith.
Christians throughout the ages have followed Jesus in living this law of love. On Nov. 1, we remember all the saints whose lives were examples of God’s mercy. Each one of us have different saints whom we hold as models and of the Christian life.
In our own day, we have seen heroic examples of love: Sts. John XXIII, John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta. In our own city, we remember Sts. John Neumann and Katharine Drexel. In our own country, we recall the love of Sts. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Frances Cabrini, Kateri Tekakwitha, John de Brebuef, Isaac Jogues, Rose Philippine Duchesne, Damien de Veuster, Theodore Guerin and Junipero Serra, along with all the “blesseds” and “venerables” whose causes are being considered. We remember all the saints without name whom we ourselves have known and admired for their living the law of love.
That extraordinary love of God and neighbor was inspired and fulfilled first by their keen awareness that God loved them. Like Exodus’ call to remember “you were once aliens in the land of Egypt,” the saints first recognized that God loved them and saved them through his Son. They knew the meaning of love as St. John described it: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10; see also vs. 11-12). Recognizing that love, they were empowered to return it in praise and thanksgiving, and in their care and compassion for the poor and needy.
Jesus once again teaches us the greatest of the commandments. He preaches the law of love, he lives the law of love; he inspired our ancestors to live the law of love, and he invites us to live the law of love:
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.