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As I understand it – which is hardly at all – contemporary physics is on a quest for what is sometimes called a “Theory of Everything” – that’s an arresting phrase, isn’t it? Modern physics operates under two theories, or frameworks. The theory of General Relativity focuses on gravity and explains large-scale, high mass phenomena – stars, galaxies, and so on. And it works; it has enormous predictive value. On the other hand, when it comes to understanding and explaining very small-scale, low-mass phenomena – atoms, subatomic particles, and so on – physics relies on what is known as Quantum Field Theory. And it works; it also has enormous predictive value. The problem is that when it comes to some phenomena, at least on the theoretical level, the two theories actually conflict with one another; they can’t both be true. And thus a search for the Theory of Everything, “the deeper underlying truth that can harmoniously integrate both General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory – a single theory that is, in principle, capable of explaining all phenomena” – I copied that straight out of Wikipedia, so it must be true!
In this morning’s Gospel, we see the Pharisees, in particular one lawyer on an analogous quest: Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the law? St. Matthew tells us that this was a test – and in fact this was a much discussed and debated question among the rabbis; it manifested a particular concern, a kind of angst within the ancient Jewish tradition, to find “a unifying principle in all the various formulations of God’s will” (Benedict XVI, 2008) – a single commandment, if you will, capable of explaining all the prohibitions, principles, and precepts to be found within the Torah. And this was a difficult question, a real test: the rabbis discerned 613 distinct commands within the Scripture, and what made sense of, gave a meaningful interpretive context to, all of them? Were they 613 essentially arbitrary commandments, or could there be discerned, could Jesus discern, a central, unifying principle, a “theory of everything.” What is the greatest commandment in the law?
And this is not merely an academic question; it’s important, and not just for what it tells about the law, but because of what it tells us about the Law Giver.
Jesus has his answer, he doesn’t hesitate. He quotes immediately from Deuteronomy: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; this is the first and greatest commandment. And then he goes for the extra credit, quoting now from the Holiness Code in Leviticus: And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Love is the answer. Well, of course it is. “All you need is love, yeah, yeah, yeah,” etc., etc., etc. Love is the answer – but is it, really? Or, maybe I should say, does knowing that, hearing it from Jesus really help? We might even ask if Jesus is actually making sense.
Thou shalt love, he says. Well, I don’t know. Love can be encouraged, enjoined, recommended; it can, I suppose, be advised. But can love be commanded, demanded, required – a matter of law? And not only a just demand of the law, but the very lynchpin and ground of all God’s legislation – this double law from which all the law and the prophets are derived and find their meaning.
Can love be commanded? It’s a real problem. And by “commanded,” and by “problem,” I don’t mean “coerced.” Love is free by definition. And to whatever degree some word or some deed is coerced or bargained for or extorted, whatever else it may be, it cannot be love.
But what I mean is, can love – complete and unstinting love – be justly commanded if it is not in our capacity to give it? What if we can’t do it – does God have the right to demand it?
You know another silly season of electoral politics is soon upon us, and we will hear and perhaps take part in debates about the appropriate rate of taxes on the profits of corporations and the income of individuals. Some think the top rate should be 10%, others will argue that it should be closer to 90%, but no one thinks it should be 101%, right? No one thinks it is just to demand more than a person has.
Can love be justly commanded if it is not in our capacity to give it?
There are, of course, some people whom it is very easy for me to love, the very sight of whom calls forth my love. And I may, after all, either because of a sense of guilt or genuine distress at another’s ill fortune be moved to some act of material charity. A few dollars for the homeless veteran, an hour of my time to visit someone old, sick, and alone. But to open my heart to another, to a stranger – or worse, someone I know and know to be difficult – and genuinely to desire his presence, his company, and his well-being, so that we come to share our lives together, which is is what this double commandment requires: that is a different matter altogether. Even if I see the justice in it, how can I will it to be so? How can I reach inside and remake my own heart?
In his Confessions, there is a section in which St. Augustine meditates on the virtue of continence, sexual self-mastery, and upon the goodness and difficulty thereof. And then, as ever, he turns his meditation to prayer: “O God,” Augustine prays, “on your great mercy rests all my hope. Lord, you command continence: give what you command, and command whatever you will.”
“Give what you command, and command whatever you will.” Augustine understood that if he were to live into the just and good requirements of the law, he would require, indeed he would depend every step of the way, on God’s grace and mercy; God would have to give what he commands.
Thou shalt love, Jesus, the new Moses commands, and we know it is right, that it is just and good. And our only response can be to pray with Augustine, “Yes, Lord, but give what you command, and then command whatever you will.”
And of course, that is just what Jesus does, just what he is doing, as he hands himself over to these “chief priests and elders of the people,” to be baited and tested by Sadducees and Pharisees and their lawyers, obedient to the law of love unto death, even death on a cross, a whole-hearted, whole-souled, whole-minded gift of love to the Father, by giving himself for his neighbor. “Having loved his own,” St. John says, “he loved them – even you and me – to the end.”
Thou shalt love, Jesus says. And it is precisely in him that the command is fulfilled. He has given, finally and fully, what he has commanded. And as we see that love, and yield ourselves to that love, and by our own stumbling steps of self-offering on behalf of our neighbors unite ourselves to and participate in that love, then we will be changed: hearts of stone will become hearts of flesh; we will look around and recognize strangers and enemies as, in truth, friends and neighbors, whose well-being, whose presence and companionship we long for. Indeed, all the commandment will make sense, and the heart of the Law-giver will shine through them.
And in the end, we will rejoice to find that Thou shalt love was never really a commandment at all, not at its deepest level, but a promise. Thou shalt love – and finally, purged of guilt and every stain of sin, we shall. We shall love, because he has loved us, and given what he commanded.
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