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Faith-filled love and the greatest commandment

On the Readings for Sunday, October 31, 2021


• Dt 6:2-6
• Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
• Heb 7:23-28
• Mk 12:28-34

What is the most common subject of popular music? Answer: love.

The Beatles claimed “All You Need Is Love.” Robert Palmer confessed he was “Addicted to Love.” “I Want To Know What Love Is” admitted the rock group Foreigner. Mariah Carey had a “Vision of Love.” Queen pondered that “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” A full listing would require a book.

But how many Top Forty songs have been about love for God? A few. But you don’t need to be a music critic to recognize that the love referred to in most pop and rock songs is either romantic love or something mistaken for love: infatuation, sexual attraction, or simply lust. What so often passes for love in our culture is actually the complete opposite of authentic love. Instead of being sacrificial, it is self-seeking; rather than giving, it takes; instead of long-suffering, it is short-term. As Pope Benedict XVI remarked in his encyclical, “God Is Love” (Deus Caritas Est), “Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity” (par. 5).

The love spoken of by Jesus in today’s Gospel is agape, that is, the Holy Father states, a “love grounded in and shaped by faith” (par. 7). When human love—whether love for a spouse, a child, a friend, or one’s country—is informed, shaped, and filled with God’s love it becomes whole and authentic. Put another way, it is rightly ordered to its proper end, which is God.

The scribe who asked the question, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” apparently did so out of sincere curiosity. He posed the question after overhearing the dispute between Jesus and the Sadducees over the general resurrection of the dead, a belief the Sadducees denied (Mk 12:18-27). This scribe, like all scribes, was an expert in the many technical details of applying the Mosaic Law in specific cases. There were 613 commandments in the Law, so the answer to his question was not  simple or obvious. In responding, Jesus referred immediately and directly to the First Commandment: “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” (Mk 12:29-30; cf. Dt 6:5).

It was this commandment, more than any other, which marked the Hebrews as a unique, chosen people.

“Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God,” writes Pope Benedict, “and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (par. 1). How we treat neighbors and strangers alike reveals something essential about our love, or lack of love, for God. As the book of Deuteronomy states, “Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow”, and, “Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Dt 27:19, 26).

In speaking of Jesus’ response, Benedict emphasized that this love “is not simply a matter of morality.” After all, atheists can give money to the poor and agnostics can build homeless shelters. “Being Christian,” Benedict explained, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (par. 1).

Our love is really love when it flows from the heart transformed by the One who first loved us, who created us, and who gave His life for us. This love is not abstract or academic but concrete and personal.

Love is so powerful because it God is love and He made us to be loved and to love others. “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). Sadly, we live in a world that is out of tune when it comes to real love. It is our joyful duty to sing, with the Psalmist, “I love you, Lord, my strength!”

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the October 26, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Morality understood as “lofty ideas, ethics” is mere social convention. Benedict XVI is correct but neither does an “encounter” with a person say much beyond the intellectual. Nor does the ancient natural law tenet do unto others it seems to me give a sense of divine love. Christ reveals love that surpasses natural law with the New Commandment to love [others] as he has loved us. For example by analogy with my love for my own well being I apprehend justice based on my own need. There is something transcendent in the manner that Christ loved us expressed in submitting to hatred and death, that in terms of justice deserves retribution. Rather than condemn [us since by our sins we sentenced him] he rises from the dead that we might have life. Only if we recognize something of the depth of that love effected in us by grace. We either assent or discount. There seems Carl, if I may an apprehension of the depth of an entirely self giving love, pure, self effacing, solely for the good of the other different from our natural capacity and normal comprehension of good. In consideration of the supreme eminence of its Author it is overwhelming.

  2. As you rightly pointed out, Carl, true love is not abstract or academic but concrete and personal. It is personal because it exists only in a person’s relationship with another person or thing. Pope Francis tells us that “God’s tenderness leads us to understand that love is the meaning of life.” Speaking about this tenderness, he said: “Far from being reduced to sentimentalism, tenderness is the first step in overcoming the withdrawal into oneself, to emerge from the self-centeredness that ruins human freedom,” This is so true, isn’t it? A self-centered person cares only about “I, me and myself” and so does not reach out to others.
    This tenderness spurs us on to look beyond a neighbor’s weaknesses, faults or sins, to see a human being made lovingly in the image of God. A person that our Lord bore so much pain and suffering to redeem. Jesus wants all to be saved and so he waits patiently forgiving, forgiving and forgiving. Only a person who places a barrier by his or disobedience will lose out from sharing the beauty and wonder of the eternal love that our Lord has earned for us. Yes, like Adam, it is our disobedience, our desire to satisfy our personal likes that will fail us – in spite of our lofty prayers and pious offerings. However, this love also spurs us to denounce sinful ways.

  3. Romans 1, 2, AND 3 outline Pauls’s explanation of this LOVE. Carls’s summary statement that “Love is so powerful…” addresses Romans 1 and 2.
    However, this article FAILS to address the third aspect and ultimate problem for us found in Christ’s definition of LOVE…that is God and neighbor “AS THYSELF” Romans 3 explains that need as the place we all find ourselves… our intrinsic and devastating failure to LOVE. Faith works thru LOVE. But Faith comes by hearing.
    Ironically, only HEARING with acceptance of Romans 3 can open the door to Romans 1 and 2. As Jesus and Paul said, that door to REAL LOVE for God and our neighbor must begin with loving ourselves enough to hear the truth.

  4. Benedict was wrong on one very important point. Jesus did not “unite into a single precept” the commands to love God and to love neighbor. They remain, in Jesus’ teaching, two distinct commands ranked one and two. Forgetting this wreaks havoc with our theology. Also, we need to have a better understanding of what is meant by “neighbor” in the Bible. It doesn’t mean “everyone on the planet” or “others-in-general”. It means “those who are near to you”.

    • It was Jesus that linked the two. Our Lord was specifically asked which was the first Commandment. Those were the words used by the Scribe, and so Jesus used those very words in his reply. However, our Lord immediately went on to add “and the second …”. He could not just stop at the first part, he had to add the second. Then Jesus emphasized the link when he said: “No other commandment is greater than These.”
      You view about neighbor reminded me of the time I was at a station waiting for a train. Since the train was not due for another ten minutes, I decided to sit on a bench which was already occupied by an elderly lady. So after a greeting and some friendly chit-chat, I sat down near her. She told me that she was enjoying the warming sun and the gentle breeze. Then I experienced that same feeling and promptly told her that even though the sun was blessing me, it did not in any way take away anything from her pleasure. The sun was big enough to warm both of us. Later, I realized that that is how it is with God’s love. It is so enormous that it could bless all of mankind. And I came to know that our love should be in that likeness. We are, after all, made in the likeness of God. Our love for God should include all that is in his love.
      You will notice that in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus used a Samaritan, a pagan from a community that was looked down upon by the Jews. That must have hurt the proud ones. The wounded person in the story could have been a Jew from nearby or a stranger from some distant land. He might have been a thief, a murderer or a brigand himself. But that did not matter. What mattered was the fact that a human being was in need of proper attention. He got it.

  5. Jesus says: if you love those who love you, what award is that for you? He tells us to even love our enemy and to pray for those who are persecuting us. We love God who gave witness to this love for us on the cross. In loving God we then love everyone else, and the more we love the more He will fill us up with the divine holy fire of His love. He himself is our nourishment, so He dwells in us and we in Him. That is why it is so important to say: Jesus, I trust in you!

  6. Just an added quip, Carl you forget to add Meatloaf’s I’d do anything for love [but I won’t do that]. Meatloaf’s self imposition is about his vow not to forget the love of the lover. Today the moral standard is a growing willingness to do anything sans limit. Gender ideology, Pansexuality will do that opening sexual indulgence to a myriad of imagined perversity and resultant inhuman behavior. Whereas Meatloaf sets a viable standard the others you quote don’t, the unwillingness to forget one’s love for us, a remarkable insight we readily reference to ourselves and Christ’s love for us. Meatloaf goes so far as to say he would run to hell and back but won’t forget that love. Meatloafian theology seems a missing dimension in today’s indiscriminate sense of love.

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