Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51
The debate that the scribe brings to Jesus today is about the first commandment. The scribes often would debate this question. The issue is which commandment overrides the others. If I can only follow one of the commandments, which one should it be? So, for instance, we should not steal, but we should go to Mass on Sunday. So what if the only way to get to Mass on Sunday is to steal a car? Which commandment takes priority? What if we choose a different commandment, about feeding the poor? What if there is someone starving and the only way to feed them is to steal food, should we do it? The scribes used to debate questions like this all the time. Some would say that the first commandment is the Sabbath. Others would say that the first commandment is the sacrifice at the Temple. So a scribe goes up to Jesus today and asks him his opinion on this debate.
Jesus answers the question directly. He does not duck it. He goes back to the Old Testament law, to the first reading we had today, and says, “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.” And then he adds from another part of the law, “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” In other words, the law of love is above every other law.
What is love? Love is a feeling. We know this, but it also must be something more than a feeling. If God commanded love in the Old Testament, and Jesus says that these two commandments of love are the most important commandments of all, love has to be an action too. Because how could God command us to feel a certain way? There is no way to make ourselves feel love for someone. We either do or we do not. Love has to be some kind of action that we can do. When these actions come naturally without even trying, that is what it means to be in love. But when they do not come naturally, we are still free to do them. We just have to make a decision to continue loving. The feeling is enough to get started, but eventually, every love requires work.
Blessed John Paul II wrote a book about the actions of love; he said that there are three parts. The three parts apply to every way we mean love: love of God, love of a spouse, love of family, love of the poor. The first part is attraction: thinking about how good the other person is. When we are in love, that is all we can do, even to the point of being blinded, but we can also do it by working at it. The first action of loving God is to think about how good he is: all that he has done for us, and how wonderful he is in himself. The first action of loving a person in need is to consider how good they are, that they are a human being with all the dignity that implies and their own personal accomplishments and talents. Then the person does not get defined by their need; the person is no longer just a problem to solve but an individual with so much to love about them.
The second part of love is desire: desiring to be with the other person. Again, when we are in love, that is all we desire. A person in love can forget to eat or sleep because they only want to be with the one they love. And this too can be done by anyone by working at it, not the desire but the being with. The second action of loving God is to spend time with him. It is what we are doing right now. Perhaps some of you did not have a great desire to come here this morning, but you are still here. With or without the desire, you have chosen to come spend time with God. When we love someone in need, we spend time with them. The need for human contact is just as real as whatever else they need.
The third action of love is doing good. When we are in love we want to bring presents and other ways of showing this love. If there is any way we can help the one we love, we are just as grateful to have the opportunity to help as they could ever be to receive help. When we love God we do good things for him. Of course this is difficult because he does not need anything from us. But Jesus says that what we do for the least of our brothers, we do for him. When we serve someone in need it is an act of love not only for them, but also for God. In this way, the love of neighbor is part of the love of God. Since we love God, we have to love his children too.
The feeling of love is perhaps the greatest feeling in all of existence. God gave us the ability to be in love because he wanted us to know how wonderful love is. But the actions of love are greater than the feeling. If we are in love with the feeling of love, we are like addicts going after our next hit. To simply chase that feeling misses the point. It is delightful when it is there because it makes it so easy to love, but the real accomplishment is loving when the feeling goes away.
When we begin following God, we often have that feeling of being in love, but then it goes away. Sometimes people think that they have done something wrong or that they were mistaken in their feelings in the first place. God is trying to draw us closer. When we begin serving the poor in a new way, we can have that feeling of being in love, and then it goes away. The test is whether we continue the actions of love without the feeling. Not because God is just trying to test us, but because if we do we will have something greater. Being young and in love is wonderful, but being married for fifty years, through good times and bad, never giving up on love, is better. Going on a mission trip and being on fire to help others is great, but serving the poor for fifty years, through good times and bad, never giving up on love, is better. Going to prayer and having an experience of love that brings us right up to heaven is amazing, but spending a whole life drawing close to God, through good times and bad, never giving up on love, is what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.