We live in an increasingly busy world. The busy nature of our society can give us the impression that we must be doing something to prove that we are useful. If we are not busy, there is something wrong with us. It is as if, for many, the correct philosophy of life is based on the principle, “I am doing something, therefore I exist.” It is, undoubtedly, good to be industrious and active, but amid our busy life we must ask a crucial question: what are we supposed to be busy about? What is really most important in life? This is essentially the question that one of the scribes, a very busy man, asks Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” In the Jewish tradition, there were 613 commandments from God. Part of this scribe’s work was to write out copies of them. We can imagine that he had become intrigued to know which of the many commandments should be considered “the first.”
The answer that Jesus gives is brief but profound. For Jesus, it is not a matter of which commandment should come first in the catalogue of commandments. Rather, he is interested in the question of what matters most, what has absolute priority. So in answering the question, he refers the scribe to the great truth that had already been revealed to the Jews: that what matters most is the one true God and our whole-hearted response to him in love. Jesus quotes some verses from the Book of Deuteronomy, part of the very passage chosen for today’s first reading. This is the great prayer that, to this day, every faithful Jew recites daily: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
We learn from the first part of Jesus’ answer what he considers “first”: the Lord our God is the source and the end of all commandments. The fundamental purpose of “all his statutes and commandments” is to unite us with the One who rules our life, who sustains us and all things, and who is the foundation and the goal of our existence. It is fitting that today’s Responsorial Psalm describes the Lord as our strength, fortress, deliverer, shield and salvation. To love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength means to place ourselves entirely in his hands. When we are united with the Lord in love, we have everything that we need.
In telling us that love comes first in our relationship with God, Jesus shows that we are not to think of God as some vague spiritual force in the cosmos. He is not a distant impersonal being. We cannot love a force with our whole heart; we can only love persons. God is a personal God, a God who loves us first, and who, because of his love, wants to be involved in our life so as to give it meaning. Therefore, he calls us to listen to him: “Hear, O Israel!” To listen to the Lord as our only God means ridding ourselves of all the other gods in our life. A “god” is whatever we give our highest priority. The only one who has the right to this absolute place is the Lord God himself.
Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews helps us understand more fully why it is right and just to put love of God first in our lives: because of the love he pours out for us in the saving mission of Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest. In his love for us, God has united himself with us by taking on our nature and then redeeming it by his perfect sacrifice. If we ever fail to love God for the gift of creation, we need only reflect on the even greater gift of redemption, which is guaranteed if we put our trust in Christ. “He is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.” The highest means by which we can acknowledge God as our Lord and receive the fruit of Christ’s priestly sacrifice is by participating in the Holy Mass, where his eternal gift is made sacramentally present for us.
In the Gospel, Jesus does not allow the first commandment to stand alone. Although love of God comes first, it must always be complemented by what comes second, love of neighbor. Thus, he immediately adds, “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” These two commandments are inseparable. As Pope Francis says, “they are two sides of a single coin: experienced together they are a believer’s strength!” When we recognize that love of God and neighbor is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices,” worth more than all our busy efforts to prove that we are useful, and when we live according to this divinely revealed law, then we are “not far from the Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom is near us, even within us, when we love. Moreover, the love we have for our neighbor takes on infinite value when we unite it with the sacrifice of Christ, which he renews on the Eucharistic altar.
What and who has absolute priority in my life? How do I demonstrate in words and actions that God matters most to me in my life? Why do I find it difficult to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.