Hillel the Elder, sometimes referred to as Rabbi Hillel, was a Jewish religious leader who lived shortly before Jesus’ time. There is a famous story told of him in which he was challenged by a potential convert to teach him the entire Torah while “standing on one foot.” In other words, can you distill the essence and present it succinctly?
That same theme may be behind the question that is raised today by the scholar of law, who asks, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”
In answering while “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 fuller text Jesus cites is from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,with all your soul,with all your mind,and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today (Deut 6:4-6).
Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Do not miss the point that the discussion of the greatest “law” centers on the word “love.” Most of us miss this connection between the law and love.
Particularly in Western culture, we tend to put love and law just about as far apart from each other as any two things can be. For us, the law is about police officers and courtrooms, 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.
As Jesus insists and the ancient Jewish Shema articulates, love and law are in fact together; the law is an articulation of love.
Consider that a man who really loves his wife does not need a law to tell him that he may not physically or verbally abuse her but rather must support, protect, and encourage her. Nevertheless, though he may not need the existence of 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, a law of love, an outworking 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 that we should love. Yes, love God passionately, with your whole heart, soul, and strength. As you do this, you will love what and whom He loves, for this is the natural fruit of love. The more one loves God, the more one begins to love His laws, His vision, what He values. Yes, all the commandments flow from loving God. Real love has its roots; it has its laws, methods, and modes.
Here, then, is the whole law, standing on one foot: love God. Let His love permeate you completely and every other commandment will implicitly flow from this love.
When we love God, we stop asking unloving questions like these:
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? Where can I find the shortest and most convenient one? Do I have to read God’s Word? Do I have to make God’s teachings the priority of my life, overruling all else? 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, reverencing the gift of sexuality that is at the heart of human life and family?
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 acceptable to steal from others or to fail to give them what is justly due. It does not wonder whether we should be generous to the poor rather than greedy, or whether to be appreciative and satisfied rather than covetous.
No, love does not ask questions like these, for it already knows the answer; it lives the answer.
Love is the law, standing on one foot, and all the rest is commentary.
God is merciful and does supply the commentary: in His Scriptures and in the vast Tradition of the Church. Praise God for it all.
The saints say, “If God wants it then I want it. If God doesn’t want it then I don’t want it.” Is that the way most of us talk? Is that the way most of us talk? Many of us are heard to say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad; everyone else has it.” That doesn’t really sound like lovers talking does it? 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.
This Sunday’s readings teach a proper understanding of God’s Law and its relationship to our hearts. The readings go a long way toward addressing the false dichotomy that many set up between love and the Law, as though the two were opposed; they are not. If we love God, we want what He wants and love what He loves. The Law describes well what God wants and loves. Indeed, the Law is letting love have its way.
God is Love and His Law (no matter how averse we are to “rules”) is ultimately an expression of His love. In all the readings today, God asks—even commands—that we let love have its way. Let’s look at four teachings on the relationship of Law to God, who is love.
I. The PROTECTION of the Law – Note that the text from today’s first reading frames the Law and the obedient hearing of it in terms of a promise of God, seeing the Law as a doorway to the loving blessings and promises of God. The text says, Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”
So, the Law comes with a promise. It is the basis of life and the doorway to the further blessings of the land. Many today see God’s Law as prison walls, as a limitation on our freedom to “do as we please.” The walls are not prison walls; they are defending ones.
Every ancient city had walls, not to imprison its citizens but to protect them from the enemy. Within the walls there was security and the promise of protection. Outside the walls lurked danger; there was no promise of safety there.
It is like this with God’s Laws. For those who keep them, they are a great source of protection; they also contain the promise of ultimate victory. Outside these protective walls there is every danger and there is no promise of victory.
In his famous book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote,
Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground …. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased .
God didn’t give the Law to take away our fun, but that we might find life and happiness. The devil is a liar; he tells us that we’ll be happier if we sin, that God is limiting our freedom by hemming us in with His Law. Sin does not make us free. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Indeed, how much suffering and pain would vanish if we all just kept the commandments? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, by insisting on journeying outside the walls of God’s loving and protecting commandments.
Moses reminds us that our decision for or against the Law brings either blessing or curse:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut 30:15-20).
II. The PRECISION of the Law – Regarding the Law of God, Moses says, In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
We mightliken Law to a set of directions to a destination. If you give me directions to get to your house, I am probably not going to get there if I only follow half of them. The compliance must be complete to bring me to the right place. Similarly, we are directed the follow the Law of God wholly. Scripture says,
Instruct me O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them (Ps 119:33).
I intend in my heart to fulfill your statutes always to the letter. I have no love for half-hearted men, my love is for your law (Ps 119:112-113).
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).
Here we must see God as a healer who is exacting and precise not for His sake but for ours. Imagine a man with two broken legs who goes to the doctor. The doctor says, “We’re going to aim for 50% here. I’ll set one leg but leave the other one broken. Don’t worry about the broken leg; that’s why God gave you two!” We would surely hold such a doctor in contempt. God, who is our healer, points to full health, not partial or crippled health.
When Jesus says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48), He is indicating the kind of healing He offers. St. Paul adds, [God who] began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).
Thus, the precision of the Law is taught to indicate the healing power of God’s Law with grace.
III. The PRIORITY of the Law – In today’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees, saying, “[You] teach as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
Now, as then, many people set aside the priority of God’s Law in favor of human thinking. Politics has become a pernicious influence in this regard. Many Catholics of both parties are more passionate about their political views than about God’s teachings as revealed through Scripture and Church teaching. If there is a conflict between what God teaches and the political party’s view, guess which gives way and which gets unquestioning allegiance?
Be it questions of abortion, immigration, or same-sex “marriage,” all too easily Catholics will turn a deaf ear to what God teaches. They never rebuke their own political party when correction is needed, and even cheer as their political leaders champion positions contrary to God’s Law. Too many Catholics place political priorities, popularity, human traditions, and human agendas over God’s Law.
The Lord Jesus goes on to say, Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, [You] make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do (Mk 7:13).
Be very careful. The pernicious effects of partisan political thinking, worldviews, and mere cultural preferences have caused too many Catholics to cease to be the leaven, the prophetic voice they are supposed to be in this world. All political parties, most worldviews, and many cultural trends need purification. A Catholic must be a Catholic before he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian; before he is a fan of a celebrity; before he raves about the latest trends. None of these things typically stand blameless before God, and the unquestioning, unqualified, and silent allegiance from Catholics and other Christians toward such worldly things is a huge problem. We are too easily compromised and have often elevated human teachings and movements above God’s Law.
To all of this, the Lord gives rebuke and reminds us that His Law must the standard by which everything else is judged. A Christian should see everything by the light of God’s Law, exposing error and evil, approving goodness and truth wherever they are found. Nothing has priority over what God teaches.
In the end it is a question of what and whom we love more: God and His Law or this world and its ways of sin and compromise.
IV. The PLACE of the Law – The Lord goes on to indicate that our fundamental problem can be that the Law of God is not in our heart. He warns that the heart, as the locus of human decision and action, must be the place of His Law for us. The Lord says, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.
Hence, we need to have God’s Law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of His Law; it must drop the foot or so from our intellect to our heart.
What is the human heart? While there are ambiguities in the biblical text distinguishing mind and heart, this much is clear: the heart is the deepest part of the human person, the place where we are alone with our thoughts and deliberations. The heart is the place where we discern, ponder, and ultimately decide. The heart is “where we live.” It is in this deepest part of us that the Law of God must find a home.
Jesus makes it clear that it is from the heart of the individual that come the behaviors that determine our character and our destiny. It is here that the Law of God must find a home. It will only find a deep home in the heart through prayer and meditation; through the careful, persistent, and thoughtful reading of God’s revealed truth, coupled with gratitude and love of God.
It is no mistake that the summary of God’s Law is simply, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as your very self.” It is only love that unlocks the door of our heart. In loving God, we begin to love what and whom He loves. To love God is to love His Law. Scripture says,
My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (Ps 119:20).
Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps 119:24 24).
The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Ps 119:72).
For I love your commands more than gold, however fine (Ps 119:127).
I open my mouth and sigh, longing for your commands (Ps 119:131).
Yes, in the end, the Law comes from love, the God of love, who is Love. Thus, it is love that unlocks the Law. It is love that makes us realize that the Law is a gift of God’s love. He gives us His law to protect us, to guide us, and to heal us. Therefore, He asks us to make His Law our wholehearted priority.
There was an expression common among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, wherein one rabbi would ask another a question, and request that the answer be given while “standing on one foot.” This is a way of saying, be brief in your answer.
That idea may be behind the question that is raised in today’s Gospel by the scholar of law, who asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
The text says that he asks this question of Jesus in order to “test” Him. In effect, he says to Jesus, “All right, let’s get right to the point. You’re talking about a lot of new things, but what is the greatest commandment?”
For this reflection, though, let’s just set aside the background hostilities and allow Jesus to recite the law, standing on one foot. In responding, Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד. Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
The fuller text recited by Jesus is from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts (Deut 6:4-6).
Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
That’s it—the whole law, standing on one foot. The first table of the law (the first three commandments): love the Lord your God. The second table of the law (commandments 4-10): love your neighbor.
There is value in noting several aspects of this summary:
The Leadership of Love– Jesus says that the whole law and the prophets depend on the command to love God and your neighbor. Love comes first and is the foundation, the power of the law. Jesus says elsewhere, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In other words, it is love that enables us to keep the law. When we want to do something, then the doing is both joyful and in some sense effortless. Love changes our desires so that we want what God wants and we keep His law not because we have to but because we want to.
The Layers of Love– The text says we should love God with our heart, our soul and our mind. These layers of our existence encompass the whole of the interior person. Thus:
Mind– Through love we come to a new mind, that is, a new way of thinking.
Heart– Through love we receive a new heart; our desires are reformed and conformed to God.
Soul– Through love we receive a new soul. We begin to live a whole new life because the soul is the life-giving principle of the body.
The Lavishness of Love– Note the use of little word all. We love the Lord with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. When we love, we are not minimalists; we are lavish. Our response to God is wholehearted, not perfunctory. Love does not ask, What is the least I can do? Love asks, What more can I do?
It is said that Rabbi Hillel (110 B.C. – 10 A.D.), being even briefer, said of the second table of the law, “Do not do unto others that which you would hate done unto yourself … all the rest is commentary.”
We like to make it more complicated, but it really isn’t. If elaboration is required, consider the Ten Commandments, understood and expressed in the light of love:
I love no other gods. If I really love God, should I need separate laws that tell me that I ought not to put other gods, whether things or people, ahead of Him? No! I want to be faithful and would never dream of being unfaithful by “sleeping with other gods” of any kind.
I love His name. I do not need rules that forbid me from using God’s name hatefully or in vain and empty ways. I love His name; hearing it lights up my heart with love.
I love to praise Him. If I love God, I do not need to be compelled by law or fear to come to Mass on Sunday and worship Him. I want to worship Him and praise His name.
I love my family, Church, and country. If this is so, then I do not need to be told to revere those who have lawful authority in those places. I love my family; I am willing to honor, revere, and pray for them. I also love my Church and willingly love her leaders and pray for them. I follow the teaching of the Church with joy, trusting that I am hearing the voice of the Lord, who teaches me through the Church. I love my country and pray for our leaders, that God may uphold and guide them. I willingly follow all just laws and work for unity based in truth and for the common good.
I love my neighbors. If so, why would I want to kill them, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually? If I love others, I revere their life and act in ways that build them up, encouraging them and helping them to have a richer, more abundant life rooted in the truth. I would never act recklessly to endanger any of them because I love them.
I love human life. If I love my neighbors, why would I tempt them or exploit them sexually? If I love the human family, why would I endanger it by treating lightly the great sacredness of human sexuality by which God calls us into existence? Why would I want to look at pornography or laugh at crude jokes that demean something so sacred? If I love others, why would I want to gratify myself at their expense?
I love others by respecting what is rightfully theirs. If I love others, why would I wish to steal from them, to harm or endanger what belongs to them, or to deprive them of what is rightfully theirs? Why would I be unjust to others by refusing them just wages? Why would I be unjust to the poor by refusing to help them when it is within my ability to do so? If I have two coats one of them justly belongs to the poor. If I love others why would I steal or act unjustly? I want to help them and am glad when they are blessed. I respect what they rightfully have and share in their joy.
I speak the truth in love. Why would I lie to those whom I love? Why would I seek to harm their reputations or gossip about them? Why would I pass on hurtful things that I don’t even know to be true? Why would I fail to share with them the truth in love? Love rejoices in the truth; why would I lie or suppress the truth?
I rejoice in the good fortune of others. If I love others why would I seek to possess what they have or resent them for what they do have? I love them and am happy for them. Perhaps their blessings mean that I too will be blessed.
I reverence the families of others. Why would I ever seek to harm the marriage or family of another or resent the gift he has in his spouse and family? I am happy for his blessings. I am happy that my friend has a loving wife and well-behaved children. Out of love, I seek to encourage him to rejoice in his gifts!
So it all comes down to love. Love rejoices in God. Love wants whatever God wants. Love rejoices in others and wants what is best for them.
Love is the key, but many of us struggle to love. God can give us a new heart, one that starts loving Him, fully and freely; one that has a deep love—even affection—for everyone. God will do that for us if we want it.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ez 36:26-27).
A thousand questions and doubts may come to mind when we are called to love. Even when we love, we cannot always say yes. Love sometimes must say no; love cannot approve of everything. Love must sometimes correct and reprove. In the end, people know whether you love them or not and they know whether you love God or not. If people know of your love for them and experience it, it is possible for them to receive even the difficult and challenging things you say. Yes, all these doubts and questions are answered by love.
Now I ought to stop, because if Jesus gives the “standing on one foot,” then the preacher must be brief as well. You and I like to complicate things and ask a lot of questions, but the answer is simple enough: love. Yes, all the rest is mere commentary.
This song reminds us that to love God is, first of all, to experience powerfully His love for us. One day it will finally dawn on us that the Lord died for us.