It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they tested him on which is the greatest commandment:
”Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He 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.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40).
The Pharisees responded with silence because Jesus answered correctly. That the entire Law can be summarized in those same few lines can be found in the Rabbinic literature of the first-century.
Since one of commandments ranks higher than the other, then they are neither coequal nor codependent. Yet they must relate in some manner since “The whole law and the prophets depend on both of these commandments”. St. Paul provides a clue as to the nature of the relationship of the two commandments:
“For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
For the Christian, to love God above all else results in the infusion of the Holy Spirit which alters our nature and permits us to care for the needs of others with equal consideration as we would our own. The manifestation of love to which the second commandment refers is the spiritual consequence of the first; and together enable the fulfillment of the “whole law”.
This brings us to the mystery of paragraph 161 of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in which Pope Francis reverses Christ’s words in Matthew’s gospel and refers instead to the command to love your neighbor as the “first and greatest of the commandments”. The context is the spiritual growth of a new Christian:
“It would not be right to see this call to growth exclusively or primarily in terms of doctrinal formation. It has to do with ‘observing’ all that the Lord has shown us as the way of responding to his love. Along with the virtues, this means above all the new commandment, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12). Clearly, whenever the New Testament authors want to present the heart of the Christian moral message, they present the essential requirement of love for one’s neighbour: ‘The one who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the whole law… therefore love of neighbour is the fulfilling of the law’ (Rom 13:8, 10)…” [additional scripture citing]
This is a well-constructed paragraph whose message is supported by five citations of scripture. At first glance, the point being made is that in addition to doctrinal formation, a Christian can also grow spiritually by loving one’s neighbor, which fulfills the whole law according to scripture. Herein lies the mystery: why distort the words of Christ to support a position that is not in any way controversial and is otherwise easily defensible?
Upon further examination, however, the intention of the author becomes clearer. In the first line the phrase “exclusively or primarily” implies that “doctrinal formation” is to be regarded as a separate, distinct means of achieving spiritual growth. It is related to the phrases “the Christian moral message” in line four, as well as “the whole law” in line five. The pope is establishing a dichotomy between growth through the learning of Christian doctrine and moral precepts and growth by means of loving others, giving primacy to the latter.
In Jesus’ words loving God, heart, soul, and mind makes it possible to love one’s neighbor selflessly; and this fulfills the requirements of the law. The two commandments are not alternate approaches to achieving spiritual growth.
Through the voice of His Incarnate Son, God announced to the world that His chief commandment to the human race was to love Him with all its heart, soul, and mind, with the consequence that this love would then result in an outpouring of love for one’s neighbor. Together, the two commandments constitute the story of the redemption of mankind and the goals of the Law, the Bible, the Church, and creation.