The Greatest Commandment
In this week’s gospel, Jesus is asked which is the greatest of the commandments. Jesus answers the question by citing the commandment in Deuteronomy that, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Cf. Dt. 6:5).
At this point, Jesus seems to have sufficiently answered the question—he was asked which was the single greatest commandment. Jesus does not stop there, though. Instead, he goes on to cite another commandment, this time from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Cf. Lv. 19:18). What are we to make of Jesus’ answer, which goes beyond the scope of the question? Instead of citing the single, greatest commandment, he cites two.
Jesus tells us that these two commandments are the foundation of the law and the prophets. That is, these two commandments are fundamental, the commandments from which all others follow. In this way, they are intimately bound up with one another. One cannot truly love God if she does not love her neighbor. Nor can one help but love God when she lovers her neighbor. These two, fundamental commandments become like one in their fulfillment.
But how exactly is one supposed to love God by loving her neighbor? Our first reading from Exodus provides us a few ideas. It tells us that we must love our neighbor by loving the alien, the widow, and the orphan. In the Old Testament, these groups were typically understood as the most vulnerable in society and thus, the most necessary to protect.
In this passage, we see a clear example of what the Catholic social tradition would come to call the option for the poor and vulnerable. That is, those who are vulnerable in our society need to be given extra attention; extra efforts need to be made to lift up their voices, their issues, and their solutions. A mentor of mine once explained the option for the poor and vulnerable using this metaphor: if you are walking down a beach, holding the hand of a small child on either side of you, and a wave crashes onto the shore, you will necessarily make more of an effort to hold the hand of the child who is closest to the water than to hold the hand of the child who is further away from the shoreline. The option for the vulnerable, as expressed in the passage from Exodus, calls us to make an extra effort to lift up those in our society who are most vulnerable, just as we would protect the vulnerable child on the beach.
But how can we make this option for the poor and vulnerable in our society? With the midterm elections two weeks away, this is a question that is worth considering with some gravity. First we must ask: who are the vulnerable in our society? Among the vulnerable are surely the immigrants and refugees in our communities, many of whom have faced physical and emotional hardship in their journeys to the United States. So too are the sick, who have to worry not only about their physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing but also the financial burdens of illness such as needing leave from work and the high cost of treatments. And of course, those who are traditionally thought of in reference to the option for the poor—those who are stuck in the cycle of poverty—are among the vulnerable in American society. Those stuck in the cycle of poverty face the need for living wage, affordable housing, and high-performing schools, among other things.
Before we vote in two weeks’ time, we need to ask ourselves if we are voting for those candidates who will help our society make an option for the vulnerable. Who will listen to and lift up the voices of those who are excluded in our society? Only once the vulnerable are heard and loved, will be able to say that we have truly fulfilled the greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
The downloadable version is here: 30 Sunday OT