Many years ago, I was assigned to a large parish with a large parochial school. Even in large populations, some people stand out. There was a student in the school who stood out from the crowd, but not for good reasons. The student I have in mind behaved chronically in inappropriate ways. His behavior was so inappropriate, in fact, that he earned a nickname from the faculty; for his entire academic career at the school, he was known as Rude Ralphie.
Rude Ralphie acted childishly when he should have been responsible. He asserted his independence at the times he was obliged to be cooperative. He was predictably late when he needed to be on time and overly demanding when he was expected to be tolerant. If Rude Ralphie had merely rearranged his various behaviors to correspond with the appropriate situations, he could have been a model student; he didn’t and, therefore, he wasn’t.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us that “when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’” (Mt. 22:34-36)
The Sadducees had tried and failed to discredit Jesus; the Pharisees hoped to be successful where the Sadducees failed. The question they posed to Jesus, however, was a commonly discussed question. Religious leaders during Jesus’ lifetime often discussed the relative importance of the Ten Commandments and the many precepts of the Law of Moses. The question could have been an innocent one, but we know from the context that it was intended to be a trap.
Jesus’ answer was as conventional as the question. His Two Great Commandments, to love God and neighbor, were taken directly from the Hebrew Scriptures. He was not the first person to suggest that these two commands from the Scriptures summarized the Law and the Prophets. There is, in fact, nothing startling about the propositions that one should love God above all else and that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Jesus did not intend to offer novel and creative teaching; rather, he was merely describing the requirements of appropriate behavior (something the Pharisees neither understood nor practiced). God expects each believer to give God the worship that God deserves; in addition, God expects each person to give others the mercy and forgiveness that all people deserve. To act in any other way falls short of the demands of authentic faith and appropriate morals.
Unfortunately, we live in a world in which most people’s behavior, most of the time, is inappropriate. It is common to hold others accountable for their actions but to hold oneself as exempt from accountability. Most people expect forgiveness but are slow to grant forgiveness to others. Everyone demands mercy but very few offer it. Too many choose to be independent when they should be accountable and dependent when they should be responsible.
Jesus’ Law of Love is a command to act appropriately at all times. The second of Jesus’ Two Great Commandments is very often misunderstood. “Love of neighbor” is not desire or attraction; God does not expect us to be attracted to one another. Nor does love of neighbor mean possessiveness or like-mindedness.
The second of Jesus’ commandments is often misunderstood because of the many misinterpretations of the word “love.” All those misinterpretations derive from the inappropriate choice to be literal for no other reason than to give oneself an excuse to avoid civility.
Why did Jesus command universal love? The answer is obvious but difficult to hear. Our self-concern, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement are the root of all social problems. Society’s problems cannot be remedied by changing society. The remedy for social ills isn’t to make a change in other people; rather, the remedy for society’s ills is to change oneself, that is, to act appropriately.
Rude Ralphie’s inappropriate behavior made him a candidate to be the patron saint of a society that worships self, power, money, and merciless behavior. On the other hand, a reorganization of his behavior could have made him a Saint in God’s eyes. The difference was made by expecting from others what he himself was unwilling to do.