Readings (Year A):
Reflection: The essence of discipleship
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first heard today’s gospel reading. What I do remember is the impression it made on me. As a young child, there were many things about my Catholic faith that I did not understand. But the idea that love was at the center of it all somehow made immediate, intuitive sense. Perhaps because I was fortunate enough to be born into a genuinely loving family, I already had some grasp of what love was, and of how powerful, and important, it was. Yet I was only just beginning to learn what this gospel meant. Even today, it often still feels that way.
Love, Jesus teaches in this gospel passage, is the essence of discipleship. All that God asks of us can be boiled down to two deceptively simple commandments: that we love God with every part of our being, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. These commandments are not original to Jesus. He takes them from the Jewish law in which he was raised, and which he insists, elsewhere in Matthew, he came not to abolish, but to fulfill. But whereas in their original texts, in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, these commands appear alongside many others, here Jesus identifies them as the foundation of the law itself. The whole law and the prophets—the entirety of scripture as Jesus knew it—rests on love.
I called these commandments deceptively simple because, on closer examination, they raise numerous questions, questions which have puzzled commentators for centuries. One question concerns the very idea that love can be commanded. To command an action makes sense, because we have some control over our actions. But do we have control over the motivationsfor our actions—over our feelings, our dispositions, the inclination of our hearts? Can we really control what we love, who we love, or how much we love? This question opens onto a more fundamental one: what kind of love is it that Jesus commands us to have for God and neighbor? And what does that love look like in practice?
The first reading, from Exodus, gives us one important insight into these questions. Love, for the Jewish tradition and for Jesus too, can never be separated from justice. And in the Bible, justice nearly always involves giving special concern to the needs of the vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, the worker, the poor person, and the migrant. The church’s modern social teaching stresses this as well. “Justice is the primary way of charity,” Pope Benedict affirmed in his profound encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. We practice love of neighbor—and begin to understand what it truly means—by doing the work of justice: that is, by promoting the rights and dignity of other persons, especially those who are most vulnerable.
The first reading also suggests that love of God and love of neighbor are closely connected. God loves all of us, regardless of our wealth or standing in society; indeed, God has special compassion for those who are most vulnerable or marginalized within society. And we show God love by loving those whom God loves, which is what Jesus modeled for us through his life and ministry. If we do this, and open ourselves to God’s grace, that grace will transform our hearts. And as our hearts are transformed, we will become more like the God we are called to love: a God who, as scripture tells us, simply is Love.