31st Sunday of the Year – November 4, 2012 – St. John’s
The question the scribe addressed to Jesus in today’s Gospel came from a quite precise context, rabbinic disputes about which of the over six hundred commands in the Mosaic Law deserved first place, as being both most important and primary because all the others could be derived from it. The question was religiously important because one’s relationship with God was only considered right if one faithfully obeyed his law in all its force and in all its detail.
The scribe who asked the question did not expect the revelation of a new law and he did not receive one. Jesus simply quoted the Law itself and assigned priority to the commands to love God above all and one’s neighbour as oneself. The first command–unconditioned love of God–was certainly not unknown to his questioner; every Jew recited that text of Deuteronomy (the Shema Israel) every day. But one of Jesus’ criticisms was that the second of these commandments–love of neighbor–often went unobserved in favor of the more precise but usually less demanding claims of dietary and ritual laws. No, Jesus said, “there are no other commandments greater than these.”
Seen in light of his whole ministry, however, Jesus’ response was a critique of the religious context from which the question came. For his message of the Kingdom was the news of God’s initiative and not of man’s effort, of God’s breaking through the scheme of the Law and establishing a reign of grace; contrast, in the parable, the father’s joyful anticipation of his son’s return to the enslaved son’s sullen resentment. In Christ’s context, we do not ask in desperation what we must do to stand right before God; we ask in gratitude what response we can make to the undeserved and immeasurable favor we have already received. The command to love completely and unconditionally is the only adequate response to the God of grace who is Israel’s “only Lord.”
By making the command to love the first of all commands, Jesus also shifts the meaning of ethical inquiry. This should no longer be understood as the search for an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts that could dispense one from the difficulty and risk of discerning what one should do. Ethical concern, instead, derives from love, is rooted in love, centers in love, so that discerning responsibility is not a matter of deductive logic but of open-eyed love.
That is very easily said, of course, and someone may even appeal to St. Augustine’s adage: “Love and do what you will.” The question will naturally arise, however: what does love mean? Must it not be specified, at least negatively, to exclude certain acts? But does answering positively the question of what love means require a new set of commandments, more precise and certain, more sober than mere appeals to love? It is tempting to think so, but might we desire such a list of do’s and don’ts precisely to avoid our own responsibility? Would it not be more accurate to think of love as freeing us for responsibility, responsibility for the selves we become and for our neighbor, that is, the next needy person we encounter?
The quick solution also seems to assume that loving is easy, that the loving comes naturally and spontaneously, that it is itself unattended by risk. Think, however, of the common metaphor: we speak of “falling in love.” The metaphor suggests at once the exhilaration and the terror of falling a great distance, a thrilling experience because so total, but a terrifying experience because so uncertain of outcome. And that is the way it is with this love of God and of neighbor. It too is to be total, but it is equally unpredictable. If it is total, there is nothing that it might not demand, no path that might not have to be walked, no sacrifice that might not have to be made. It is glorious because it is total; but it cannot be plotted out in advance. Just as a husband and wife, on their wedding day, do not know what their love might require, so we cannot plot out what the love of God may demand. It is idle to try either; it is of the essence of love in the concrete that its demands are known and experienced only by those who love.
Are we left simply alone, then? In a sense we are; for no one else can fall in love for us; no one else can believe for us; and no one else stands precisely where we stand. But, more radically, we are not left alone; for the love of God is not the object of our choice–how do you decide to fall in love?–but the gift of the outpoured Spirit. A heart does not turn itself from stone to flesh; a heart that feels has already been touched, and the question what loving God means arises only in a heart that has felt, however faintly, the touch of that God whose every gesture is love; and we are given, within ourselves, the first and central criterion by which to test what love is. We are not alone in the further sense that we participate in a community of the Spirit, alongside others in whose hearts the Spirit is working to overcome hatred and selfishness. And the Spirit we possess in common makes our search for and discernment of his holy purpose a communal enterprise.
The infinite response demanded of us–with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, with all our strength–is the only appropriate response to the infinite favor shown to us. The demand made can only terrify if the favor is lost from sight; for only in the graciousness of the God who revealed himself in Christ can we know that we are accepted before our slightest effort, only in him can we catch sight of the good that is our final goal and our present call.