In today’s Gospel from Mark, one of the scribes approached Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments” (Mk 12:28). This may have been a challenge to Jesus or it may just have been a valid question of one seeking the Truth. Scribes were the experts in securing and making known the Torah. They could read and write, a skill not only used for protecting and passing on the faith, but also for the daily tasks of commerce and contract writing.
This question of the scribe was one that was asked often by those who sought how best to live out the Torah. Not only were there the Ten Commandments, but throughout the Torah, there were 613 prescribed laws! A common debate that was often entered into was which were the most important to follow to be faithful, as well as the minimalist approach, being, which were the most important to be followed so someone could just get by?
Jesus replied, “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.” With this response, Jesus drew first on Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and then regarding loving your neighbor, Leviticus 19:18. By answering in this way, Jesus stated that when we orient our lives to who God has created us to be, which is to Love God first, place God at the center instead of ourselves, we can then better love our neighbors and ourselves.
St Augustine, the bishop of Hippo (354-430), echoed Jesus’ “Greatest Commandment” by stating that we can love God and do whatever we want. The order of that statement is aligned to the commandment Jesus gave. God is first. The problem many of us have is that we place ourselves first, and seek to bend God’s will to our own. We look to flip the words to, do what I want and God will love me. True God will love us, but we will not experience his love, for we have disconnected ourselves from our relationship with him.
When we shift our orientation to seeking God first, such that he is our foundational approach to our life, our world opens up. Many of us are wounded by our own sin and the sin of others. We retreat into defensive postures and actualize defense mechanisms to survive. These may be good and necessary at the moment, but the challenge is that if we continue to live in a posture of survival mode, we are merely existing.
God wants us to strive, to be fully alive. His greatest joy is when we become fully alive and flourish, actualizing our vocation and the truth of who we have been created to be. This becomes a reality in our life when we open ourselves to the love of God, when we recognize we need him in our life, and that we need him to bring us the healing balm of his love and mercy. Once we begin to experience the love of God we will begin to see ourselves and others, not from our own limited perspectives, but from the greater breadth and depth of how God sees us.
God is reaching out to us in so many ways to tell us that he loves us. He is loving us more than we can ever imagine. We unfortunately are so turned in on ourselves that we close ourselves off to him. God’s love for us is unconditional, it is not based on a feeling or an emotion, though we sometimes experience those. God’s love is a deeper experience of willing our good. God loves us as we are, right now, right at this moment. We just need to take some time to sit, breathe, and experience God loving us. As we slow down enough to receive the love of God, we will begin to see in the course of our day how many ways he reaches out to us.
What we are needing now more than ever is to expereince the love of God so we can move out of our defensive postures and risk loving each other. This is possible when we are willing to say yes to God’s invitation for us to enter into a relationship with him and each other. What will begin to heal the division, dehumanization, and polarization in our country is our willingness to encounter one another as human beings, resisting the labels and prejudgments, to experience our differences not as obstacles but gifts to our mutual growth, and loving our neighbors as ourselves as God loves us. This takes time, there is no quick fix to building relationships. But start now we must.