In today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40) a Pharisee, who was also “a scholar of the law,” asked Jesus a question that teachers and rabbis were often asked—“which commandment in the law is the greatest?” With 613 laws given by Moses, it would be natural to want to prioritize them.
Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 which commands that God be loved with all one’s heart, soul, and mind. This was such an important law that to this day the Jewish people write it on a piece of paper and place it in a small receptacle that is attached to the doorpost and is touched upon entering and leaving one’s house. This is a concrete way of declaring one’s intention to live by that law inside and outside of one’s home.
Recall last Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-21). Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the pagan emperor who used those taxes to oppress the Jewish people. Jesus responded by taking a coin and asking whose image was on it. After being told it was the image of the emperor, Jesus said: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” What belongs to God? We do. Every human person is made in the image and likeness of God, is stamped with God’s image, and therefore belongs to God. St. John wrote that God is love. Made in the image of love, we are made by love and for love.
Love does not ask “What’s the minimum requirement?” A marriage in which one spouse asks the other “What’s the least I need to do to keep you happy?” won’t last very long. Love asks “What more can I do to show you my love? What more can I do to prove my love for you?” The love that the greatest commandment requires is a total love.
But if our love of God is to be total, how can we fulfill the second commandment that Jesus quote—Leviticus 19:18 with its command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Aren’t these two commandments in conflict?
No, they are actually one commandment. When you love someone you share the interests and desires of the one you love. You love what he or she loves. To love God means to love what God loves. And what does God love? You. Me. All humanity. All God’s children. Loving God totally means loving our neighbor.
Jesus once said that the greatest love was to lay down one’s life for another. Jesus is the proof of God’s love for us. Jesus shared our life and laid down his life on the cross to prove God’s love for us.
The world’s view of love is actually the opposite of love. The world tends to say that love is a feeling. I love whatever makes me feel good, whatever gives me pleasure. This is the opposite of love which is not about getting but giving. In his encyclical God is Love Pope Benedict said that our definition for love must begin at the pierced side of Jesus, that opening to a heart that showed the world the deepest and truest love ever known. True love is total. Ultimately it involves sacrifice.
Have you ever heard of Tom Burnett? He was on United Flight 93 which crashed into a field in Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2001. In college he had stopped going to church and went searching for God. In time he returned. He worked for a medical technology firm in California and was close enough to home that he would have lunch there. According to his wife Deena, in 1997 he stopped coming home for lunch. Deena thought that Tom, who was accustomed to working 70 hours a week, was simply spending his lunch hour putting in more time at work. Six months before his death, he revealed to her that he was going to the 12:10 Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church. In an interview, Deena said: “He told me that he felt God was telling him he was going to do something. Something big. But he didn’t understand what it was.” He figured that if he went to Mass, God’s will for him would become clear. Deena went on: “He knew that what he was going to do would impact a lot of people. And he knew one other thing: it had something to do with the White House.”
Imagine Tom Burnett, an ordinary guy. He has no desire to go into politics, much less aspire to be president. Yet he has this sense that God is calling him to something big and it somehow involves the White House. You can hear him thinking, “What does my life have to do with the White House?”
On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House. He and the others on that plane knew where it was headed. They knew they had to do something, even if it meant sacrificing their lives to prevent a greater tragedy from happening.
Where did Tom get the understanding and courage to do what he did? The Eucharist. There he heard the Word that guided him through life. There he received the Body and Blood of Christ that transformed him into someone who could love God and his neighbor with a total, self-sacrificing love.
What Tom and the others did was heroic. We may think, “That’s not me. I’m not a hero.” But each of us, in his or her own way, is called to heroic love. It may be parents sacrificing themselves for the good of their children. It may be a spouse dealing with the unemployment and depression of the other. It may be children trying to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s. Each of us in one way or another is called to love sacrificially. The power to do so comes from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass where Jesus makes present his life-giving death and resurrection, where he proves once again how loveable each of us is.