THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, Year A; Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

October 25, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46


Lectionary for Mass (RC)

Exodus 22:20-26
Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51 (2)
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Matthew 22:34-40

Twice a day observant Jews recite the Shema Israel, which begins with these familiar words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. . . . You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

In response to a question about which commandment is the greatest, it is hardly surprising that Jesus would quote the Shema, a text with which he and his hearers were very familiar. They were undoubtedly in agreement that the first—and greatest—commandment is to love God above all. Jesus then goes on to declare that “a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mt 22:40a)—also a familiar and traditional Jewish teaching (Leviticus 19:18).

The question, posed to Jesus just days before he was condemned and crucified, was one in a series of tests with which the religious leaders confronted him. On the one hand, his response shows him to be solidly and faithfully traditional. On the other hand, by bringing together these two commandments, Jesus is calling his listeners to a new and deeper understanding of their own tradition: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:40b).

While clearly identifying the love of God as the “greatest” commandment, Jesus also teaches that the command to love neighbor is “like it” and thus of central importance in living God’s ways. By linking the love of God to love of neighbor so closely, Jesus is showing that they are in fact inseparable.

Throughout his ministry Jesus had identified both the reign of God and his own mission with the poor, the lowly, the prostitutes, the tax collectors—those who had been marginalized by mainstream religious leaders. To love God wholeheartedly is to love those whom God loves, including the vulnerable and the outcasts. The clearest and most dramatic expression of Jesus’ teaching on love of God and neighbor occurs in the judgment story that follows just a few chapters later. The criterion for entrance into the kingdom of God is plainly articulated as love of neighbor: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

While the love of God is the first and greatest of the commandments, the depth of that love is perhaps best measured by our love for those that we find undesirable or tiresome, those we sometimes barely notice, or those most difficult to love.

A Hymn for Today: “The Call Is Clear and Simple”

Love of neighbor often calls for sacrifice and letting go, yet authentic love sometimes requires the courage to challenge and resist abusive treatment. This text by Ruth Duck, FHS, reflects on the complexities of living out the call to love our neighbor.

The call is clear and simple:
“Love God and humankind.”
But love demands much wisdom
And clarity of mind.
“Be wily as a serpent,
Though gentle as a dove,”
For many are the dangers
Upon the path of love.

God, help us sort our motives,
That loving may be whole,
High aims or base ambition?
Compassion or control?
Then help us clear our schedules
Of every frantic task
That leads away from doing
The one thing that you ask.

God, teach us strength and wisdom
When false love takes the lead.
Too well we learn submission
And silence our own need.
When others would misuse us
Or lure us t’ward the wrong,
God, temper love with courage
To keep our bound’ries strong.

O wise and holy Lover,
Teach us as seasons turn
To know ourselves and others—
Deep, honest love to learn.
So may we nurture living
In all we say and do,
In strong and gentle giving
To humankind and you.

Text: Ruth Duck, © 1992, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission.

Image Credit: Potluck Mural, Cambridge, Massachusetts

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.