Like many Americans, I do have serious reservations about the present-day leadership of our country; yet, as election approaches, it doesn’t take a seer to observe the effort by the major media houses, tech companies and the academia to influence the outcome of the election. This has reached a level of insult to our collective intellect. I support constructive criticism of leaders, but not utterly risible gamesmanship. Jesus faced a similar fate and was a marked man with adversaries pacing all around him. Controversies never failed to swirl around Him. Even as a child, Simon prophesized that He would be a sign of contradiction. However, unlike many present day leaders, Jesus used opposition against Him to develop unassailable teachings.
Adding to the long list of Jesus’ adversaries in today’s gospel is a lawyer who injects a controversy about the law hoping that He’ll trip. Surprise, surprise! Of course, that’s what lawyers do: find a way to win a case based on technicality. We who live in America won’t think that 613 precepts are a lot of laws to observe. But for the Jew of Jesus’ time that’s quite a burden when you add them to the 10 commandments, all believed to be God’s will for Israel. Among these laws, 248 contain positive precepts (Thou shall) while 365 are negative (Thou shall not), some of which we heard in today’s first reading. Several rabbinical schools tried to summarize these laws for easier comprehension. For example, the school of Rabbi Hillel the Elder taught: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole law, and all else is commentary.” The test posed by the scholar of the law to Jesus was to see if he’ll criticize any part of the law while presenting another as more cogent.
Jesus decided to settle for a summary, somewhat like Rabbi Hillel’s summary turned positive: “You shall love the Lord your God..., and your neighbor as yourself.” As the originator of the law, He combines all the commandments into a statement and adds that on the two commandments—love of God and love of neighbor—hang the whole law and prophets. The key expression here is found in this verb krematai (“hang”). Conceptualize a pole suspended by two ropes on each end on which is mounted a piñata at its center. The piñata hangs on the pole provided each end of pole is held tightly by the ropes. If the rope at either end gives way, the piñata falls. Or more simply, a bicycle can only ride on its two wheels. Remove one wheel and the bicycle is of no use. Jesus teaches that love of God and love of neighbor are like the two wheels of a bicycle or the two ropes holding the piñata in place. Remove one, and the other collapses.
This is classic teaching: You cannot love God without loving your neighbor; neither can you love your neighbor without loving God. Corroborating this teaching, St. John adds: “One who does not love the brother he sees cannot love God, whom he can never see” (I John 4:20). St. John further avows that, “the love of God cannot be in anyone who loves the world, because nothing the world has to offer—the sensual body, the lustful eye, the pride of possession—could ever come from God” (I John 2:15f). Jesus’ teaching counters the lie that is perpetrated each day on TV, that love is without obligation.
But that wouldn’t be the final statement Jesus makes about love. In John 13:34, He gave the Mandatum Novum, a new commandment. Loving your neighbor as yourself is no longer sufficient. He says, rather: “Love one another as I love you.” His love accomplished by dying for us becomes the paradigm for loving others; meaning that, love is sacrificial, love is sacred, love entails suffering. It was painful for the father of the prodigal son to welcome back a wayward child. It’s also very painful to watch patiently as one whom you love yells insults at you. I think that just as it’s law to stamp on certain products, the words: “This product may be harmful to health” so we should have on marriage certificates that, “Love entails suffering,” and the measure of love is to love without measure.
Fr. Jo Chukwudi Okonkwo