Summary: this article intends to deepen our understanding of God’s Commandments as summarised by Jesus. In doing so, we will discover the existence of two very important though hidden verses.
“Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.” (Is 45:15) These words of Isaiah tell us that God is… in a constant hidden position. In which sense can we say that God is “hidden” and that what we know of Him is very little considering who He is?
What is it exactly that we know about God? We presume that we possess a good deal of knowledge about Him. However, in doing so, unconsciously, we are constantly making judgements about God! Who He is; How He sees things; How He sees us, judge us, judges others, facts, deeds and situations. We think we know. The Scriptures reveal God to us, but at the same time, they keep a great deal of Him hidden.
Our job is to dig deep! Will it not be our “mission” for all eternity, to delve always deeper into God, discovering at every heartbeat of eternity, a new aspect in God, leaving us in great awe?
By contrast and mistakenly, we tend to limit God with the workings of our brain. But God is limitless, infinite, uncreated. In a way He certainly is the main object of our exploration and research. Why, then, at a certain point in our Christian life, do we reach a point of “satisfaction” thinking that our thirst for knowing God has been quenched and we stop wanting to know more? And when we say “to know” we need to intend it in the deep Biblical meaning, used to denote the human relationship between a man and a woman.
God, however, reveals himself to us, in Jesus and through Jesus’ Words and deeds. God continues in time, after Jesus’ Resurrection, through forty days and Ascension, to lead us to the fullness of Truth with the coming of the Holy Spirit. This embodies in great part the meaning of our life. This prepares us for Eternity, which will be, in fact, the continuation of this divine exploration of God. Otherwise, if we consider it, if this wasn’t the meaning of our life and the contents of Eternity, the latter would be extremely boring. Imagine sitting for the rest of your Eternity in front of a screen- saver picture of God. Killingly boring. So, let us get ready for our Eternal job and start exploring God himself, wanting to know Him (biblical knowledge not mind and reason knowledge), which means experiencing Him, receiving Him and receiving the Revelation He makes of himself to us.
Let us always assume that we are rather on the blind side, and that we need to see Him! We need to discover new aspects of Him! This is why human life on earth cannot be boring! It is a constant exploration, making relentless discoveries of God himself. God exists! He deserves to be known and loved for himself alone. We dedicate teams of people and money for research in technology, matter, the universe, atoms, medicine…. Do we do the same for God?
Aside from this being the task of every Christian, being a monk, by comparison, should particularly have as an object this research. Not a purely intellectual research. Not an accumulation of PhDs… though there is nothing wrong with this, but this type of research is something altogether different. Even the PhDs in Theology should be on a personal quest. Being a Theologian should be like being a monk twice over, in the sense that the vocation for searching for who God is finding Him, having the experience of Him, and should be the essence of the mission of the Theologian. Otherwise, it would be better to remove the prefix “Theos” from Theo-logian.
The Scriptures offer us an amazing opportunity to delve deeper into God. They are not sleek, streamlined or plain! They are full of mysteries, unexpected things, obstructions, “irregularities”, difficulties, obstacles… This is done on purpose, with the intention of God hiding himself under a rough shell, almost dissuading us from looking into it and through it. Only the persistent believer, the resilient one, would undertake to dig!
Look at the archaeologist. Look at the Geologist, Palaeontologist, Geoarchaeologist. They search, unearth, try to understand and read history through remains, through rocks. Even the Astrophysicist undertakes similar research but in the cosmos.
Is digging about pure exegesis of the text? Is it only about grinding up the text? Isn’t it also about something slightly different? Indeed it is, for the text of the Old and of the New Testament contain much more than the literal explicit meaning we find in it. The literal meaning is a very minute (important though it is and unmissable) morsel, hiding a huge being: God himself.
Questioning the text, challenging our understanding of the text is needed in order to go off the beaten track and keep alive in us this sense of awe when face to face with the infinite God.
We know how challenging and tough the Old Testament (and also many passages of the New Testament) can be. It has also some of the most beautiful and unsurpassed passages about God. A great Paradox.
Let us look at one of the most commonly known passages of the Bible and see how many surprises it is concealing for us. It is the passage where Jesus summarises Moses’ Commandments.
The act of summarising is a very important act because usually the risk one incurs in doing so is to diminish the content, reduce it, take away important parts of it. Jesus dares go for the challenge of summarising the entire commandments and He does it in a very specific way. He gives us a “portable” “easy” summarised way to remember the summary of all our duties. But what is there that is more than what the eye can see?
There are three plus one different accounts about the summarising of the Commandments. Three are found in the so-called “synoptic Gospels” i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke. There Jesus offers two commandments. And we have an apparently completely different form in the Gospel of St. John where Jesus offers us one summarising commandment that He calls: the new commandment (John 13:31-35). John will later say in his first letter that it is not “new” as such (see 1 John 2:7-8), but new in Jesus and in us.
Let us first consider and read the three synoptic two-commandments versions.
Matthew: 22: 34-40
“34 And the Pharisees, having heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, were gathered together the same day. 35 And one of them, a lawyer (an expert in the Jewish Law), questioned Him, testing Him,
36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?”
37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ (Dt 6:1-19) 38 This is the great and first commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Lev 19:18)
40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”” (Mt 22:34-40)
Mark: 12: 28-34
“28 And one of the scribes having come up, having heard them reasoning together, having seen that He answered them well, questioned Him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
29 Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear this O Israel: The Lord our God is One Lord, 30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
31The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is not another commandment greater than these.”
32 And the scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher. You have spoken according to truth that He is One, and there is not another besides Him, 33 and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love the neighbour as oneself is more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 And Jesus, having seen him that he answered wisely, said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to question Him any longer.” (Mk 12:28-34)
Luke: 10: 25-28
“25 One day an expert in the law stood up to test Him. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He [the expert in the law] answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ ”
28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:25-28) (Then in order to explain who “my neighbour” is Jesus tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan where not a new type of neighbour is offered but another type of Jew is offered: a Samaritan who acts better than a Jew.)
Let us also remember the texts of the Old Testament Jesus is quoting:
Deuteronomy: 6: 1-19
“1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.
3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
10 When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant — then when you eat and are satisfied, 12 be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
13 Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15 for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. 16 Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah. 17 Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you. 18 Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors, 19 thrusting out all your enemies before you, as the Lord said.” (Dt 6:1-19)
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.”
Let us now focus on Matthew’s version.
The Two Commandments
“34 And the Pharisees, having heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, were gathered together the same. 35 And one of them, a lawyer (an expert in the Jewish Law), questioned Him, testing Him,
36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?”
37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ [Dt 6:1-19] 38 This is the great and first commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ [Lev 19:18]
40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”” (Mt 22:34-37)
Before entering deeper into the Commandments as Jesus summarises them, let us consider a few initial points. First of all it is a Pharisee who is talking to Jesus. But who are the Pharisees? They comprise a group of people who consider themselves as the elect, the chosen, the elite-group of God, the pure. All their efforts are concentrated on offering a pure practice of God’s Law, the Torah. Thus, when a Pharisee challenges Jesus, what is at stake is Jesus’ orthodoxy, the purity of Jesus’ faithfulness to Moses. In the text, it is not only a Pharisee, but a Doctor of the Law, an expert in the Torah who ventures to challenge Jesus’ orthodoxy. Why is this so? The answer is that Jesus’ Message, the Good News, seems to many too “new”, too different, from Moses’ Law. Jesus doesn’t speak too much about very detailed laws and rules, He doesn’t speak too much about exterior practices of the Law, therefore by default He seems to be dismissing it. By contrast, however, Pharisees look at sacrifices, other added laws, a literal reading of the law and rules. The temptation then is to embody all our duties toward God into a list of commandments and rules that end up giving us the illusion that we are really pleasing God. Another important reason why Jesus’ Teaching appears “new” is because instead of focusing on a minute and detailed way of practising the hundreds of Jewish traditional commandments, Jesus focuses on exercising Mercy toward our brothers and sisters. This seems to turn the Law upside down where the Law appears to be a focus of our duties towards God himself and worship.
Note: The Newness of Jesus’ Teaching. If one considers the different versions of the two commandments in the New Testament, one easily notices a movement in this direction, i.e. toward the love of our neighbour! At first sight it could be misunderstood, as is happening with the Pharisees, and one could think that Jesus seems to be changing Moses’ Law and horizontalizing it. However, this is not the case at all.
In Matthew and Mark, we are still dealing with a summary. (Please see above texts) With Luke we already start the shift: “Who is my neighbour?” says the Pharisee and gives Jesus the opportunity to offer us the amazingly disturbing parable of the Good Samaritan. He flips the question: instead of telling us who our neighbour is, Jesus tells us that a non-Jew (or a non-Christian) can be better than they, the guardians of the Law, in loving our neighbour! Instead of telling the Pharisee about the object of love, i.e. on which category of people he should focus and adding the Samaritan, He flips attention to the Pharisee himself, i.e. the subject of love, the one who loves.
(Samaritans, compared to the Jews, were true heretics. Imagine who could be our Samaritan today! I leave it up to you.)
Finally, with St. John, instead of having two commandments, Jesus unites them in his person, giving himself as the perfect living implementation of the Law: “love one another as I have loved you”. He even calls it “my commandment”! Acting as God! God only gives commandments! Jesus acts here as a legislator. Plus, He seems here to be turning Moses’ Law upside down, by placing the love of our neighbour as a priority. In fact, however, it is an optical illusion! The small expression “as I loved you” changes the commission entirely.
As we can see, in summarising Moses’ Law in the four Gospels, we find that there is a true progression:
1- Matthew-Mark, 2- Luke, 3- John. In this, Jesus’ teaching appears “new” to his contemporaries.
The truth is that Jesus has perfected Moses’ Law. He didn’t come to abolish it but rather to add a new depth to it. Jesus says: you have been told: do not kill. I say to you: do not hate your enemy – on the contrary, love your enemy and pray for him! Jesus delves deep; He can purify our heart, transform it with his Holy Spirit, and allow it to do something normally impossible: to love our enemy. In this also Jesus’ teaching appears “new”.
This is why the text adds: “questioned him, testing him”. Jesus claims to be not only a prophet but The Prophet mentioned by Moses’ prophecy (Deuteronomy 18), the Messiah himself. So, the Pharisees, challenged by his new teaching want to see who He is, and test his orthodoxy, see if He is abiding by the Truth as they know it from Moses.
In the midst of the thick forest of the commandments and rules, the Pharisees want to see how Jesus understands and summarises the Law, the Torah. This is part of the challenge. They test his understanding of the Law. It is not only a copy-paste answer, but by summarising one also interprets. They, in fact, are challenging Jesus to make sense of the Law, to see how He understands it – to show them his knowledge of the Law.. Show us your knowledge.
Jesus accepts the challenge and in his answer He will in fact challenge all of us (the Pharisees and we Christians, readers of the Gospel). Jesus will bring together two texts, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus. One talks about our duties toward God and one about our duties toward our neighbour. One can say that it is a way, first, of going back to the ten commandments of the Law and secondly of summarising the ten commandments, classifying them into two categories, the first ones that focus on God and the second ones that focus on our neighbour. (The numbering of the commandments is “3 and 7” or “4 and 6” depends on the versions or traditions. See this article)
His choice seems to satisfy the Doctor of the Law and the Pharisees. Matthew doesn’t mention this aspect but Mark, in his longer version says: “And no one dared to question Him any longer.” (Mk 12:34)
Let us also not forget the authoritative and powerful conclusion of Jesus in Matthew: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”” (Mt 22:40) Jesus, thereby, is saying that if truly fulfilled, these two commandments not only summarise but also overshadow the entire Law and the Prophets, in the sense that all other commandments proceed from them. If I fulfil these two, all the others will be fulfilled because they depend on them like the “body” depends on the “head”.
Here seems to end the story, in Matthew’s account.
The First Hidden Verse
Instead of continuing our journey through the three other versions (Mark, Luke, John) I would like to stop and ponder on the two Commandments, as summarised by Jesus in Matthew.
Jesus here, when quoting Moses, seems to be giving once again the Law, in a summarised way. He is asking us Christians to focus on these two commandments. He clearly says that they really and truly summarise Moses’ Law. This act of summarising is part of Jesus’ teaching. Let us look at it then as coming from Jesus, as a doctoral act on his part.
God, in Jesus and through Jesus, gives us his Commandments:
“37 ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ (Dt 6:1-19) 38 This is the great and first commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Mt 21:37-39)
Let us start by speaking boldly and humanly, just for the sake of getting a truer understanding and not in any way lacking respect toward God and his Sanctity. The start of Jesus’ statement is bold and lacks gentleness. Without any preamble, God says this is what I want you to do: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ He wants “all” my heart, “all” my soul, “all” my mind, my energy, my being! This is ferocious as a demand! Imagine a young man talking to his date saying: you must love me with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your energy. What would be her response? To flee! This is an unbearable way of treating a young lady! Who is he to ask for such a thing: all… all… all…. There would be nothing left in us after that if all our being were involved in loving God! Yet we are called to be totally devoured by God! Indeed, He says that He is a devouring fire (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29).
God here looks like a wild tyrant without any mercy, wanting all of our being. And “out of love”! Again, let me repeat that I have no intention of offending God’s Holiness, I am just trying to address in human terms the commandment as it is without diminishing it, because we very rarely consider how bold and roughshod it is! God is asking us – out of love – to give Him everything! What is left in us? Do we realise that this is our religion? Do we realise that this is our faith? Do we realise how absolute is the first commandment – that He wants all of our being? Do we realise how abrupt and almost violent and unbearable is the demand! In fact it can be questioned now, that since nothing is left of us, is there any room for another commandment?
It is important to meditate and ponder on the radicalness of God’s first and most important commandment: He wants all of our being for Him! Out of love! It is a sudden and frightening request.
To love is to give everything and give oneself. To give oneself! So, if God is asking me to love Him with all my heart, all my soul, my strength and thoughts, He is in fact asking me to give Him all my being: heart, soul, energy… Just think…He approaches us and the first thing He requests from us is all of ourselves! Nothing less than everything. A sudden and shocking way to approach us. He truly is the creator of his people He is talking to in Deuteronomy and He is their saviour: He saved them from Egypt and freed them. But still… the demand on Mount Sinai is quite abrupt.
Why isn’t the introduction to this verse smoother, gentler? I am deeply convinced that this verse in Deuteronomy where God states his first commandment, is preceded by a hidden verse that introduces it. This hidden verse goes something like this: “I am YHWH your God. I do love you with all my heart, all my mind, all my strength… and therefore I can ask you in return to love me in the same way.” This verse is hidden. It is like God’s secret, God’s vulnerable area. God’s powerful feelings toward each one of us.
This verse is the truth! Nobody can challenge this statement unless we deviate from orthodoxy. God really loves us, is at the door of our heart, waiting, wanting to give himself to us entirely, not wanting to keep anything to himself. This is his truth, his deep truth, a discreet but true confession!
Comparing the contemplating of the manifestation of God’s Love (Jesus on the Cross), St. Paul says: “he loved me and died for me”, while St. John says: “that much God loved the world that He gave his only son his beloved.” Significantly, the Greek text puts “that much” at the beginning of the sentence, which is grammatically correct in Greek, but it goes to underline the power of the statement and its intention).
Taking all this into consideration we now can see the right order in a fuller light as follows:
1- I am God, your God, and I do love you with all my heart, strength, mind… (hidden verse)
2- Therefore I invite you to respond to my love, giving me the same: i.e. everything.
Note: first and foremost, God loves us not because we are good, or we deserve it or merit his love. It would be an error to think that! He loves us because this is his very nature, because He is Good, Goodness itself! He can’t change his nature! The only thing He knows and does is to love, i.e. to give himself. He is like an almighty waterfall, that can’t stop itself from falling, from giving himself, from coming out of himself.
But still, because we are made in his image and likeness there is a mysterious attraction that He feels toward us. We are capable of receiving his love, and He is divinely thirsty to give himself! Jesus once said to St. Catherine of Sienna: “make yourself capacity, I will make myself torrent”. Well, the way we are created makes of us “capacities of God” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church: nn° 27-49, “Man’s Capacity for God”).
The Second Hidden Verse
The second commandment is stated as being “similar to the first” and has this clear affirmation: “love your neighbour as yourself”. The “as yourself” poses another question: this means that God has already in one way, or another, asked us to “love ourselves”! It is a commandment of God to love ourselves! Of course, there are correct and upright ways of loving ourselves and wrong and sinful ways of loving ourselves! God is asking us to truly love ourselves, in a positive manner. Not only that, but He poses this love of ourselves as a condition of becoming capable of loving our neighbour!
Here also there is a type of hidden verse between the two Commandments:
3- You shall love yourself in a truthful manner (hidden verse)
4- You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Suggestion: if we receive God’s love (the first hidden verse), if we are transformed by His love, we are indeed doing two things: we are loving ourselves, we are nourishing ourselves with Truth and Love! Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, God is our light and love, our nourishment, our happiness.
Some of us never thought that not only could we love ourselves, but also that this is a commandment, something we can’t escape from! This is simply overwhelming!
Indeed, the two main commandments are concealing deep surprises if we ponder on them.
Who wouldn’t like to start his day by meditating and praying on the first hidden meaning, this mind-blowing overwhelming declaration of love from God: I am YHWH your God, and I do love you in an absolute, unconditional way: with all my heart, all my thought, all my strength: receive my love.
Why doesn’t God declare his love for us from the very first pages of the Bible? Why when He gives the Law (the Ten Commandments) to Moses doesn’t He state his love for us clearly, explicitly, before asking us to do the same for Him in return?
There is progressivity in the unveiling of His being! But, fundamentally, God’s thirst, God’s incredible love for each one of us is something hidden.
“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” (Proverbs 25:2)
Searching out the matter is the glory of the human being! It is the meaning of his life. It is not curiosity or an ill habit! On the contrary, it is a fundamental aspect of human nature to dig and delve, to search, to try to find the secret, God’s secrets!
“it is the glory of God to conceal a matter”! and truly He is hidden! We confess it every time we go to Mass: don’t we say: “heaven and earth are full of your glory”? Do we really see God’s glory on earth?
The Book of Wisdom says: “Wisdom shouts in the streets. She cries out in the public square.” (Proverbs 1:20). Do we hear Wisdom’s voice? She shouts in our streets! How come we don’t hear her? Our earthbound ears are just not used to sound of her voice!
“Give me Oh Lord the Wisdom who is seated at your side!” (Wisdom 9:4)