This week we are looking at what I'm going to call the Joy of Love or Love Joy. For the last couple of weeks we've been looking at love. Last week
in particular we saw at a few love myths. Today we go back to where it all began because this Sunday's Gospel reading is the one when Jesus tells us to love God and love neighbour.
It all begins with a simple question:
Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?
This was a question at the time of Jesus. People would gather around the water cooler at work and talk about which commandment was the most important. It’s like today, everyone talking about this new silly religious neutrality law in Quebec or people talking about which diet is better or what we need to do to be happy. That was a question that a journalist asked Pope Francis in 2014
: What is the secret to happiness; the secret to having joy in your life?
The scholar of the law in today’s Gospel reading is not just trying to trick Jesus. I think he’s actually asking him a real, valid question that people had at the time, like the journalist asking Pope Francis what’s the secret to being joyful.
613 Commandments of the Law
Let me give you a little background. Today, in post-Temple Judaism, which we call rabbinic Judaism (maybe some of my Jewish readers can correct me if I get this wrong) we commonly accept that there are 613 commandments in the Torah: 613 commandments in the Law of Moses. This does not include the 10 commandments. We’re talking about all the other commandments contained in all the 5 books of Moses.
These are called the Mitzvot – mitzvah means law; mitzvot is plural. Many of these laws have to do with priestly service. The Levites where the priests and they had very specific laws as to how to do their job and how to offer sacrifice and serve at the Temple. These are the levitical laws and most of them are in the Book of Leviticus.
There are also laws about food; what to eat, what not to eat and how to eat (like not to eat worm found in fruit, Lev 11:41 or eat the limb removed from a living beast, Deut. 12:23, or not to slaughter an animal and its young on the same day, Lev 22:28).
There are laws about offering sacrifice and about ritual purity and impurity (what makes one pure or impure); laws about marriage (like marrying a widow of a brother who has died childless, Deut 22:5), about clothing (like a man shall not wear women’s clothing or a woman shall not wear men’s clothing, Deut. 22:5); about agriculture and how to breed your animals (like not to sow grain or herbs in a vineyard, Deut 22:9 and not to cross-breed cattle of different species, Lev. 19:19); about idolatry (like not to tattoo the body, Lev 19:28, or plant a tree for worship, Deut 14:1).
There are also criminal laws and laws about judicial procedure and punishment; laws about property (like never to settle in the land of Egypt, Deut 17:16). There are laws about employment and how to treat your slaves; laws about how to conduct business, laws about how to treat the stranger and the foreigners (like we here in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus 22:20-26) and how to treat the poor and unfortunate. There are laws about prayer and blessings; laws about signs and symbols (like every male offspring must be circumcised, Lev 12:3) and of course, laws about God.
A good Jew knew about all these laws. Pharisees were strict with all these laws and a scholar of the law, was, well, an expert in the Law.
So when this scholar asks Jesus the question, he may have been trying to trick Jesus, but he’s also asking a very real question that people had at the time.
Jesus responds well. He responds with a prayer that every Jewish person knows very well, the Shema: “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength"
(Deut 6:4-6). This is the prayer that every Jewish person prays first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
I imagine all the people accepting the answer and beginning to walk away and then Jesus saying, “wait, I’m not done. There’s another part. This is the greatest and first commandment, but there is a second, which is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” These were two commandments, one from Deuteronomy 6 and the other from Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the Lord.” Again, every Jew would be familiar with that commandment, but no one would have thought to put the two together. Love God and love neighbour. Jesus says they’re the two greatest commandments.
Love God and Neighbour: makes sense
We cannot pretend to love God if we do not love our neighbour. And all those who love their neighbour, are loving God. The Vatican II Document, The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church
(Lumen Gentium) says that those who love neighbour, can find eternal life, even if they do not know or think they do not know God. Makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense to me is that it is a commandment. We do not love because we are commanded to love. I do not love my wife or my family because the law says I have to love them. I love them... well... because I love them. God is love. God has loved us first. He loves us into creation and we, in turn, love him as a response to his everlasting, perfect, total love. We love our neighbour, also, as a response to God’s love, because we cannot love God without loving our neighbour.
But there's more!
Do you notice that there is actually a third commandment that is implicit in those two? Love God; love neighbour and love yourself: “Love your neighbour as yourself.
” It implies that we must love ourselves. Again, it makes sense. You cannot love God or neighbour if you do not love yourself and if you love God, then you will automatically love neighbour and self.
A few years ago I went through a phase where I had all these buttons. I collected them and had them attached to my backpack. Someone gave me one that had the letters J O Y. It spells “joy”, but it stands for “Jesus”, “Others” and “Yourself”. It is a reminder of how these three loves have to be ordered. First we love Jesus, we love God. Then we love others. That’s important – that’s the love of the cross: the vertical love of God and the horizontal love of neighbour. But if those two are in place, then automatically there is the third one of loving yourself: Jesus, Others, Yourself. It spells JOY.
In the time of Jesus they wanted to know what was the greatest commandment. Today we want to know what brings us Joy. It’s the same answer. The secret to happiness is to love.
Come back next time and we'll begin wrapping up our discussion on love.
This is part 6 of a series deacon-structing love. Read the whole series:
Part 1: Problems
Part 2: Types
Part 3: The Family
Part 4: The Joy of the Gospel
Part 5: Myths
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected] @deaconpedrogm