In the first Reading taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, (Deut 6:2-6), Moses enjoined the people of Israel to keep their own part of the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai. He reminded them that it was by keeping the Commandments of God that they would have life and prosper in the promised land.
The main laws given to the Israelites by God are known as the Ten Commandments. The first three laws – I am the Lord your God, you must not have any other gods except me; you must not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; remember and keep the Sabbath holy – are summarised in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 prayer known as the “Shema Israel.” “Shema” means listen. The prayer states, “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God is the one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let these words I urge on you today be written on your heart.”
This prayer was recited thrice daily by devout Jews, and it was embedded in the phylacteries worn by the Pharisees. Through the covenant God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, he entered into a special loving relationship with them. He was to be their God, providing and protecting them. On their part, the people of Israel were to reciprocate God’s magnanimity towards them by being obedient to his commandments.
In essence, they were to be consumed by their love of God; their thinking and behaviour were to be spiced up by their love of God. To love God with one’s heart, soul and strength is to love God with one’s being. The lyrics of the song ‘This is My Desire’ captures the essence of the “Shema Israel’s” prayer:
This is my desire to honour You
Lord, with all my heart I worship You
All I have within me I give You praise
All that I adore is in You
Lord, I give You my heart
I give You my soul
I live for You alone
Every breath that I take
Every moment I’m awake
Lord have Your way in me. (Hillsong).
To listen in the context of “Shema Israel’s” prayer also implies putting God’s commandments into practise. Our love of God flows into our love of our neighbour. St John queried how one can claim to love God, that is not visible to the naked eyes, if one does not love the neighbour that one can see, (1Jn 4:20).
Leviticus 19:18 states that one ought to love one’s neighbour as oneself. This is the basis of the golden rule that instructs us to treat others as we would like to be treated.
The rabbis had expounded the Ten Commandments and had added additional laws which confused people about which commandments were the more important. The Scribe in the Gospel of today was genuinely seeking knowledge. He wanted to know the most important of all the commandments. Jesus informed him that the greatest of all the commandments was the love of God and he added that the second most important commandment was the love of neighbour. Thus, Jesus brought the two laws together.
Already, the second part of the Ten Commandments – honour your mother and father; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour and so on – pertains to our relationships with our neighbours. Hence, the love of neighbour is the summary of the second part of the Ten Commandments. Eventually, Jesus will raise the love of neighbour to a selfless love when he asked his disciples to love one another as he had loved them, (Jn 13:34).
Our love of God is not subsumed into our love of neighbour. They are two distinct commandments. One cannot say, “I am taking good care of my neighbour and that suffices for my relationship with God.” Neither shall one say that “I am so caught up with my worship of God that I care less about the welfare of my neighbour.” Our love of God finds practical action in our love of neighbour while our love of neighbour finds its anchor in our love of God. Jesus had criticised the pharisees who neglected their duties to their parents because of their supposed vow to God, (Mk 7:11-12). Hence, the love of God and neighbour are like two distinct sides of a coin.
It is always better to have a heart that loves than a heart that hates. I do realise that at times hate arises from a betrayal of one’s love or trust. It is my prayer that our ardent love of God may continue to manifest itself in our care of our neighbour’s wellbeing, and may God bring healing to our brokenness. Amen!
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp