The scribes of the law again test Jesus with a simple question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Mt 22,35) The Jewish tradition was that there are 613 commandments or mitzvot in the Torah (also known as the Law of Moses) as first recorded in the 3rd century CE, when Rabbi Simlai mentioned it in a sermon that is recorded in Talmud Makkot 23b. Every law was considered important and necessary. The ordinary person could not possibly know every law and follow them religiously. At the time of Jesus, the ordinary person would not have access to a written account of the law. It was the role of the scribe to guard the law, to teach the law, to apply the law to every circumstance in life and to interpret how each law could be fulfilled. The law was complex and complicated. In many ways, during the time of Jesus, the law of Moses was a minefield and it was nearly impossible to keep every law that was taught by the scribes. Certainly, the scribe that poses this question to Jesus to test him felt that choosing one law above others would be tantamount to ignoring all the others.
Jesus doesn’t separate one law from the others, rather, he chooses an answer that sums up the entire law in one great commandment: love. Jesus opens a way to God through the law, not apart from it. Jesus has already stated in his sermon on the mount that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” (Mt 5,17ff) Jesus intends to fulfill the entire law by one great act of love. The law is not abolished but it is taken up into the one great commandment to love. St. Augustine asserted in a sermon on the gospel of John: “In as much as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love itself is the beauty of the soul. Once for all, then, a short precept is given to you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” Love is the root of all that is good, true and beautiful! Without love we are nothing as St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “If I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1Cor 13, 2) So Jesus responds simply to the test of the scribe: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on theses two commandments.”” (Mt 22,35ff)
The love that Jesus proposes is not a subjective feeling or emotion that is given to one person when the mood is right. It is an objective demand or response to the revealed love of God. Love is rooted in the person of God the Father. John writes in his letter to the Church: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God: everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.” ((1Jn 4,7-12) The root of all of the commandments is the love of God. We love because God first loved us. God is love and everything in life flows forth from this eternal spring of love. It is this love for which the soul thirsts and it is this love that is the beauty of the soul.
So the law of God is really not that complicated. It is written on the heart and not on a stone tablet. Love and do what you will. God first loved us, so we must first respond to the love of God with love in return, with everything that we are, and we cannot love God if we do not also love our neighbor. Love has a claim upon us as human persons. Love is not just a movement of the will or a matter of the heart. Love is justice put into action. Love speaks to our intellect and asks us to acknowledge according to reason the needs of our neighbors and that we are called to respond to those needs. We do not just love when we feel like loving. We do not love only God and those whom we like and we feel good about. We do not measure our love by how we feel about something. The measure of our love is the “love unto the end” of Jesus, who was willing to lay down his life in love. Love is only perfected and fulfilled when we act in love for one another and serve one another’s needs. We love that we might have life!