According to today’s gospel, Jesus tells us that the greatest thing we can do with our lives is to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus has taken two familiar Old Testament texts and puts them together. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 to make His statement about love of God, and then he cites Leviticus 19:18 regarding love of neighbor. What is new is that He put them together as the greatest of the commandments, Jesus gives them equal weight in terms of seriousness and gives them a new interpretation.
From now on, all good works have value both as acts of love of God and as acts of love for neighbor. The two can no longer be separated, even in the Bible. We can no longer speak of one without the other.
By linking the two commandments together Jesus makes explicit what was only implicit in the Old Testament. For example today’s reading from Exodus forbids us to exploit the poor and helpless because the Lord will surely hear their cry.
Implicit in this reading is the close connection that exists between what we do to our neighbor whom we see and what we do to God whom we cannot see. Jesus now makes this close connection not only more explicit, but goes on to say that it sums up the entire teaching of the Old Testament.
Jesus said what you do to the little ones you do to me. Saints like Father Damien of Molokai and Mother Teresa of Calcutta saw this connection clearly and spent their lives in loving service to the most abandoned people in society as a way of expressing their love for God. It may not be our calling to minister to the most unwanted, like lepers and AIDS victims, war refugees and immigrants, or alcoholics and drug addicts, but it is our call to balance in some suitable way the vertical dimension of our relationship with God in prayer with other people in mutual service.
The praise we give God with our lips might be followed by using those same lips to talk to someone who is lonely, to encourage someone who is disheartened, or to cheer up someone who is sad. The prayer we pray with our hands might be followed by using those same hands to hug our children or spouse, to prepare a meal for our family, or to do some housework for a shut-in neighbor.
May the Cross formed by our vertical and horizontal acts of love remind us always to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves.