Opening the Word: Greatest commandment

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

The Beatles claimed "All We 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 40 songs have been about love for God? 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 first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ("God Is Love"), "Eros, reduced to pure 'sex,' has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity" (No. 5).

The love spoken of by Jesus in today's Gospel is agape -- that is, the pontiff states, a "love grounded in and shaped by faith" (No. 7). When human love 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 sent by the Pharisees to test Jesus 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 about which was the greatest -- a question meant to trick Jesus and provide an opening to denounce him -- was neither simple nor obvious. In responding, Jesus referred immediately and directly to the First Commandment: "Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Dt 6:5). It was this commandment, more than any other, that marked the Hebrews as a unique, chosen people.

"Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbor found in the Book of Leviticus: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (see 19:18; Mk 12:29-31)," writes Pope Benedict. "Since God has first loved us (see 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" (No. 1). How we treat our neighbors reveals something essential about our love, or lack of love, for God. And as today's first reading from Exodus suggests, our neighbors are not merely people we know or we like, but include strangers, widows, orphans, the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden.

In speaking of Jesus' response, the pope emphasizes 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," Pope Benedict explains, "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" (No. 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 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!"

Carl E. Olson is the editor of