There was an expression common among the Rabbis of Jesus’ time, and perhaps even now, wherein one Rabbi would ask another a question, but request the answer be given, “Standing on one foot.” Which is a Jewish way of saying, “Be brief in your answer.”
And that sort of expression may be behind the question that is raised today by the scholar of law who asks, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”
And in answering, “standing on foot,” Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד.
Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!
The text Jesus cites from Deuteronomy 6 goes on to say:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Deut 6:4-6)
And Jesus adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition: The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Do not miss the point that in discussing the greatest “law,” the discussion centers immediately on the word “love.” The fact is, most of us do miss this connection between law and love.
Truth be told, most of us in Western culture put love and law just about as far apart from each other as any two things can be. For us, law is about police officers and courtrooms, it is about forcing people to do things under threat of some penalty. Love, on the other hand is about doing things willingly, because we want to, rather than because we have to.
But the fact is, as Jesus insists, and the ancient Jewish Shema articulates, love and law are in fact together, and law is an articulation of love.
Consider that a man who really loves his wife does not need a law that says “Do not break her arm, do not verbally or physically abuse her, but rather, support, protect, and encourage her.” Nevertheless, though he may not need the law in writing, he is in fact following the law of love when he observes these and other norms. There is a language of love, there is a law of love, there is an out working of love’s works and fruits. In the end, love does what love is, and love is supportive, enthusiastic, even extravagant in keeping its own norms and laws. Love does what love is.
Thus, when asked about the Law the Lord just says “love.” Yes, love God passionately, with your whole heart, soul, and strength. And as you do this, you will love what he loves, and who he loves, for this is the natural fruit of love. The more I love God, the more I begin to love his laws, his vision, what He values. Yes, all the commandments flow from this simple fact, that I love God. Real love has its roots, it has its laws, its methods, its modes.
Here then, is the whole law, standing on one foot: love God. Let His love permeate you wholly and entirely, and every other commandment will implicitly flow from the this love.
When we love God we stop asking unloving questions like:
Do I have to pray? For how long?
Do I have to go to confession? How often?
Do I have to go to mass? how often? What’s the shortest and most convenient one?
Do I have to read God’s word?
Do I have to make his teachings the priority of my life such that they overrule politics, convential thinking etc.?
Love does not ask questions like these, it already knows the answer, it already lives the answer.
Further, love does not ask:
Do I need to honor and care for my parents?
Do I need to respect lawful authority, and contribute to the common good?
Do I need to respect life from conception to natural death?
Do I need to work to cherish and safeguard the lives of others?
Do I need to live chastely and reverence the gift of sexuality that is so much at the heart of human life, and family?
No, love does not ask questions like these, it already knows the answer, it already wants to live the answer.
Love does not ask whether we must respect each other enough to speak the truth in love, to be men and women of our word. It does not wonder whether it is okay to steal from others or to fail to give them what is justly due. It does not wonder if it should be generous to the poor and needy rather than greedy, or whether to be appreciative and satisfied rather than covetous.
No, love does not need to ask these questions, it does not wonder these things. It knows the answer.
Love is the Law, standing on one foot, and all the rest is commentary.
Now God is merciful and does supply the commentary, in His Scriptures and the vast Tradition of the Church. Praise God for it all.
But honestly, listen to the way most of us talk and think. The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” Is that the way most of us talk? Hmm…most of us are heard to say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad…..everybody else is doing it.” Doesn’t really sound like lovers talking does it? My, My, My. Somehow the saints knew the Law of God, and could say it standing on one foot. How about us?
All the commentary is nice, and surely needed. But don’t miss the point: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.
Love is the Law, and the Law is to love.