Leviticus anticipates Jesus’ Greatest Commandment

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

any of the commandments in the Bible instruct us to perform an action — for example, “Honor your father and your mother.”

Other commandments tell us to refrain from doing something — for example, “Thou shalt not kill.”

But the commandment that comes to us in Sunday’s first reading — Lv 19:1-2, 17-18 — calls us not to carry out any specific action or to refrain from one, but rather, to possess a certain quality of character: “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy.”

Then how do we obey it? Do we devote ourselves to prayer, spend time on our knees? While that may sound very commendable, it does not guarantee holiness.

God is calling for an attitude of heart. This becomes clear in the remainder of the reading: “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.” The reading then offers a more positive instruction: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This anticipates the commandment of love that Jesus issues in the New Testament: “[Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”’ (Mt 22: 37-39). (See also Mk 12: 30-31; Lk 10:27; and Jn 15:12.)

We should note that the Law of Moses provides 613 commandments. At the time of Jesus, there was some discussion about whether they were all equal, or if not, then which commandment should be considered the greatest of them.

Jesus gives a clear answer to that question. He similarly offers a firm emphasis upon love in his other teachings.

Jesus’ emphasis upon love is based upon God’s love for us. We are called to love because God loves us.

That call to love parallels the command in Leviticus: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”

In other words, if we are loving persons, then we will also be holy.

That idea is also borne out in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo: “Love, and do whatever you will.” That is to say, as long as our actions spring out from love, they will be just and acceptable to God.

That is similar to what Jesus adds after his commandments of love: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:40).

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