The two great commandments are to love God and neighbor

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two great commandments
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This Sunday we encounter a familiar description of the life of faith, given to us straight from the mouth of Jesus: “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 these two commandments.” — Mt 22:37-39

It is worth noting that Jesus says that these twin commandments to love God and neighbor are the foundation of the law and the prophets. In other words, these commandments are presented in the Old Testament as the Way of God and of life with God.

October 29 – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ex 22:20-26

Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51

1 Thes 1:5-10

Mt 22:34-40

Indeed, the first of the two commandments cited by Christ — to love God with your whole heart, soul and mind — is a citation of Deuteronomy, and one that is closely linked to the Shema, the daily prayer of the Jewish People. The Shema is also found in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Dt 6:4).

The second of the two commandments referenced here by Jesus comes from the Book of Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:18). This commandment, too, is linked in the Old Testament to faith in God and God’s Way. In fact, in this instance, God himself says so: “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lv 18:18).

Jesus lives these commandments

It is also worth noting that Jesus does not just refer to these two commandments. He lives them. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ identifies with the “little ones” who are his neighbors, those for whom he came to work the works of mercy: the hungry, the naked, the doubting, the lonely and the sick. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40).

Through the Incarnation, God made of us his neighbors. And then he loved us as himself. We are to respond likewise — with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.

St. Justin Martyr’s understanding

St. Justin Martyr (martyred in 165 under Marcus Aurelius) gives us an understanding of our “response in kind.” This response, says Justin, is a neighborly exercise of Eucharistic love. The following is an excerpt from Justin’s “First Apology,” written to the Roman Emperor in the year 155 as a defense of Christian life and worship — oriented to God, but poured out upon the “little ones” in union with Christ:

“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read … Then we all rise together and pray, and … when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and … in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings … and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is distribution to each … and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the presider, who succors the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or another cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need” (Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” Chapter 67).

To take “care of all who are in need” has been God’s way since the beginning. The law and the prophets tell us so. And Christ, in his gift of his whole self to us, absolutely and completely, specifies this way as Eucharistic. “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” and I have loved you so.

Catherine Cavadini

Catherine Cavadini, Ph.D., is the assistant chair of the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology and director of its master’s program in theology.