God’s Greatest Commandment

The mercy which God commissions us to spread in loving our neighbors is not intended to end with just any need being met; it is intended to end with their deepest need being met.

Scott Elmer

When pressed by the Pharisees and scholars of the law to clarify the greatest commandment, Jesus of course responds that it is essentially the first of the Ten Commandments: Love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength (Mt 22: 34-40). But he doesn’t stop there. Although he was only asked which one commandment was the greatest, Jesus goes on to announce the second, which he says is like the first, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. Furthermore, Jesus proclaims that the entire law and the words of the prophets depend on these two commandments. 

Why does Jesus’ answer go beyond the confines of the question? Why does he feel the need to elaborate? Isn’t loving God enough? Cannot the law and the prophets depend sufficiently on the first and greatest commandment?

It is a curious nuance that we often overlook, and in a way, has become a bit of a trite remark. “Love thy neighbor…” Many people don’t even know their neighbors, much less love them. My neighbors happen to be my in-laws; I’ll let you decide whether that puts me at an advantage or disadvantage in this task. The fact remains, Jesus necessarily included the commandment to love thy neighbor as yourself and stated that it, along with the love of God, are the commandments on which everything else depends. 

How should we live out this commandment? What is required? Two questions must be answered first: What does it mean to love my neighbor? And who is my neighbor? 

To answer the first, we will actually start with the second. Who is my neighbor? Of course, Jesus also has an answer for this in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). At the end of the parable, Jesus asks which of the three who encountered the man beaten on the side of the road were his neighbors? The lawyer who began the conversation with Jesus replied, “The one who showed him mercy,” to which Jesus responds, “You go, and do likewise.” Here, Jesus adds the powerful quality of mercy to the commandment of loving they neighbor. 

Our love of neighbor must be directed to those who need to experience the mercy of God. Many times, we find our hearts wishing for people to experience the judgment of God, depending on the types of signs we find in their lawns. Jesus, conversely, did not come to bring judgement, but mercy. Don’t worry justice warriors, judgement will still come and I’m sure his wrath will burn hot, but our hearts are better matured in desiring his mercy. 

The Samaritan in the parable was a cultural enemy of the man beaten on the side of the road. By society’s standards, he should be the last person to help much less put up a significant financial gift. They are on different teams, from different parties, have different values. But the mercy of God transcends all of this. His mercy drives and initiates love of neighbor. His mercy opens doors and builds bridges. 

The mercy which God commissions us to spread in loving our neighbors is not intended to end with just any need being met, but with their deepest need being met. Their deepest need and most meaningful response to their misery is a relationship and union with the Living God. Every act of mercy has this as the aim. To love our neighbor means to show mercy in a way that leads to an encounter with God. Our merciful acts should make room for the proclamation of the source of mercy, the salvation of Jesus Christ.

One of the popular magicians from the Las Vegas show “Penn and Teller,” who is an atheist, once explained in an interview that he is not offended when Christians attempt to evangelize him. The way he sees it is that if these people really believe that there is a God who is in Heaven, which is paradise, and the only way to get to this Heaven when we die is to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if we don’t we face eternal damnation, then someone must really have to hate another person to not try to share this news with them. 

So, the final question is one we must ask ourselves: Will we love our neighbors or will we deprive them of the opportunity for lasting relationship with Jesus Christ? 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!