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FRIDAY HOMILY: The Greatest Commandment

By Fr. Randy Sly
3/8/2013 (5 years ago)
Catholic Online (

Loving God and our Neighbor - Love's Vertical and Horizontal Way

As frail humanity, it is easy for us to get so caught up in separate small matters that we miss the big picture. Unfortunately, when we keep trying to put things in a priority, we can construct a false reality since we really don't understand how various components actually relate.


By Fr. Randy Sly
Catholic Online (
3/8/2013 (5 years ago)

Published in Year of Faith

Keywords: Love, Sermon on the Mount, Total Commitment, Neighbor

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Jesus had just been through a time of testing with the various parties in Jerusalem. The Pharisees and Herodians were both challenging him about paying taxes, while on opposite sides of the argument. Then the Sadduccees (who didn't believe in the resurrection) confronted him about the resurrection.

Now, in our Gospel passage for today (Mark 12:28-34) a solitary scribe approaches him. Probably out of his amazement in Jesus' answers, he asks him a reasonable albeit important question.  "Which commandment," he inquires, "is first of all?"

This was a question widely debated among the teachers of the law. As such, he was looking beyond the Decalogue - the Ten Commandments - to the addition rigor place on the Jews through the Talmud. There were 613 complementary laws, or more accurately fence laws" that must be followed. These laws were designed to assure a Jew that he would not transgress one of the "big Ten."

Scribes had always thought that among them all, there must be one that is first and foremost. This was the source of constant debate and the teacher was looking for another answer.

So, Jesus, who was put on the spot, responding immediately saying, The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.

"Well said, teacher," was the Scribe's reply.

While the Scribe was looking for one commandment among many that would stick out, Jesus stepped back from the minutia and used a sweeping statement from Deuteronomy 6, part of the Hebrew "Shema," and Leviticus 16.

As frail humanity, it is easy for us to get so caught up in separate small matters that we miss the big picture. Unfortunately, when we keep trying to put things in a priority, we can construct a false reality since we really don't understand how various components actually relate.

When we moved to Northern Virginia fifteen years ago, the area didn't make a lot of sense to me and was hard to figure out. We had rolling hills and a lot of trees, a very different terrain that Kansas, where we had lived for the 14 years before that.

Then I started traveling a lot out of Dulles Airport. From several thousand feet everything began to make sense. I noticed how close - or far - things were to each other. How the different towns and residential communities fit together.

This was Jesus plan. While the Scribes were down on the ground, looking at the overabundance of laws from which to choose, our Lord was soaring high above, emphasizing the vertical and horizontal relationships that superseded them all.

The love relationships we express with God and each other are both the measure of our faith as well as the means. During Lent, we should take time to examine both.

Loving God

The first part of the "greatest commandment" was taken from the Hebrew "shema" which was the beginning word of a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Our Lord, in responding to the Scribe, particularly underscored the fact that our relationship with God is based firstly on love not legalism. For all intents and purposes, he was saying, that if you truly love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind (this phrase was added by Jesus in his quote), and all your strength, you then could do what you want.

How am I with regard to loving God? In the typical examination of conscience, this would focus especially on the first three commandments.

Since we would normally be using this for confession, we would frame our questions in the negative; where I have failed to love Him. We could look at such things as denying him before others, taking his name in vain, failing to pray, missing Mass, etc.

While the Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us absolution, we can't stop there. Our heart's cry must be to proactively seek for the grace of the Holy Spirit, working in us, to bring us to the place where we truly love Him more.

St. Paul, in describing certain actions he was taking with regard to the Church in Corinth, said, "the love of Christ compels us." The love relationship that we have with God becomes a compelling interior force that brings about behaviors in accord with the law of God!

Jesus would later explain to his disciples that this comes from "abiding." He shared this profound truth while walking with them from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane.

His words were captured by St. John in the fifteenth chapter of his gospel. "Abide in Me, and I in you," Jesus said. "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (15:4,5)

The love, then, that we are talking about is the sap that runs from the vine trunk of Jesus to us, his branches. More than simply abstaining from wrongful actions, we proactively live in a love relationship with him.

Abiding comes in many ways: through prayer, the reading of Holy Scripture, meditating on his truth, spending time in adoration, etc. There is one part of abiding, however, that our Lord specifically references - the Eucharist. In John 6:56 he tells his disciples, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him."

Loving Our Neighbor

The horizontal relationship with our fellow man is also a part of God's great commandment. We cannot love God without loving each other.

In his pastoral epistle, St. John makes this vividly clear when he writes that, "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in light [there is that word "abide again!] and in it there is no cause for stumbling." (I Jn. 2:9, 10)

The fruitfulness of our love relationship with God is critically linked to the way we relate to those around!

If we continue to use the image of the vine when talking on the "neighbor level," we begin dealing with the area of fruit - how our lives "taste" to others.

Jesus told his disciples that an abiding relationship would yield fruit in our lives. When we think of a grapes, apples, pears, etc., fruit is the outward expression of the inward essence of the plant or tree. So what does this fruit look like?

As spiritual beings, our fruit is described by St. Paul in Galatians: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control."

Our love for our neighbor is detected through the spirit in which we care for them and not simply the act itself. This is why love of neighbor in intrinsically involved. So it is not merely that we do things for others but the interior motivation that calls us to loving activity.

This past weekend, the transitional deacon assigned to our parish during his final year in seminary was preaching. He shared about an experience he had during his first year of seminary. He asked a spiritual director how he would know he was making progress in prayer and devotional life.

He was expecting to hear that prayer would become easier, the Scriptures would come alive more quickly, or that he would have a stronger sense of the divine.

The priest looked at him and said, "You'll know you are making progress by the way you relate with other people." In other words it's all about fruit.

The deacon went on to share three verses from Luke's section on the Sermon on the Mount: For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Lk. 6:43-45)

In Jesus' encounter, the scribe was able to take a few steps back from the letter of the law and see the big picture. He realized that love not only surpasses the law but leads to a different place even in terms of the sacrifices to God. He recognized that loving God and neighbor "worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

And by taking the step back, as Jesus told him, he was not far from the Kingdom of God.

During a homily many years ago, a pastor told his parish, "Well, the bottom line regarding our commitment to Christ is this - truly and earnestly love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength then do whatever you want!"

Perhaps a little cavalier, he had a point. God is interested in authentic expressions of love not imitation fruit. No matter how hard you bite down on an artificial grape, it will never be tasty. The same can be said for our love for neighbor.

This Lent I would encourage you to spend some time at your church before the Blessed Sacrament, just taking time to love our Lord. In doing so, look up at the cross and the body of our Lord that hangs there. Remember that the vertical trunk of the cross is His invitation to come to Him, to love Him with our being. Yet on the transepts, His arms are extended in a loving embrace of the world. Through us he wants to love those around us. Through his love we can truly love our neighbor.

Father Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and a priest with the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter ( established by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, through the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. He is currently the chaplain of the St. John Fisher Ordinariate Community, Director of Pro-Life Activities for the Ordinariate, and a priest in residence at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church. He is a popular speaker for parishes and other organizations.


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