The Hebrew people were very fond of law. They debated the laws and the commentaries on the laws endlessly. They found ways around it, above it and below it. They figured out how they could observe it to the letter. Every dot on every i and every cross on every ‘t’ of the law was important to them. The law and the prophets were the two hinges on which their spiritual tradition swung.
The tradition of the prophets was one of social justice. This experience was rooted in the Exodus experience of the first reading. There was to be respect and generosity of treatment to the stranger and to the vulnerable. There was a memory of hard times during the wandering in the desert that made them consider the outsider and the little ones. There was a consciousness of a God of justice as well as of a god of power, a creator God.
With this background in mind the Pharisees, who were strict followers and meticulous interpreters of the law try to trick Jesus into giving an answer in which they, the experts, might pick holes. Jesus confounds them with simplicity, giving them and us the first and greatest commandment and its flipside. This is not simply a God of power or a God of justice, but a God of Love. To love God is to make room in one’s life for the things of God.
It is not enough merely to proclaim love. Love needs to be expressed in words, in signs, in sacraments, and in person. It took God an incarnation to fully show his love. Only the incarnation of our love is enough in return. Loving neighbour as self seems deceptively simple. It is however the challenge to respect each person, to treat each person with dignity, even when you disagree profoundly with them. To love another as self is to have self-respect, to set high standards for the self and to go out and beyond the self in love of God and others.
It’s a tall order, a great challenge, a wonderful synthesis of teaching. It is the measure of true spirituality, the grace and ability to truly love the things of God, to respect others always and to do so out of a sense of the dignity and wonder of oneself as God’s creation and as one destined for perfect and everlasting love with God.