Jesus was a great teacher, but his power as a preceptor did not depend on innovation. In other words, Jesus’ teaching was largely drawn from the Scriptures of his own day, from what we now call the Old Testament. He wasn’t making it up. His examples may have been fresh and vivid: Jesus told stories, and people connected with them and were moved by them. But his doctrine, the things he taught and the way of life he commended, was not original.
Our Gospel is a case in point. A lawyer asks Jesus which of the commandments is the most important one. He answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37): a form of teaching from the book Deuteronomy, a sort of gloss on the first of the ten commandments. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). This is the greatest and first commandment, Jesus says. Nothing innovative there. That’s Deuteronomy, not Jesus.
Then Jesus goes on to say that there is a second commandment similar to the first. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Aha, we think: here’s Jesus adding his own insight, tacking on his own teaching to the commandments. But the wind goes out of the sail when, having heard our first reading today, we realize that Jesus is once again citing the Old Testament, this time Leviticus. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:15).
Jesus was unique, but not primarily because of his teaching. Jesus in our Gospel draws from the books of the Old Testament to teach us about love, as we’ve seen and as we’ve heard in our first reading. He brought these two teachings together, true, but even combining these teachings on love may not have been particularly original. Jesus made an impression on people, but the force of that impression did not lie in what he said but in the way he said it, and the way he lived it.
In Jesus, the power and force of God’s revelation of himself under the Old Covenant passed from the Word spoken by the law and the prophets into the Word incarnate himself. Here before us in our Gospel stands the Word spoken by God long before. The precepts of love of God and love of neighbor, taught under ancient Israel, became flesh and blood in Jesus Christ, personified in a divine Person. Now the Preceptor, the Teacher himself, is in our midst, living out the life of love taught under the old law.
As it says in Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:15). It is that unspoken “I am the Lord” from Leviticus that echoes so loudly as Jesus sums up the law and the prophets. If you know the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Dog That Did Not Bark,” you know that sometimes what isn’t said is the most important thing, the clue to the mystery.
In other words, the unspoken truth is that it is the Lord himself, the Lord God of Israel, who stands among them, teaching them the love of God and neighbor. As it says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches “as one having authority” (Matt. 7:9), and not like the scribes. “Authority”: not the expertise of a teacher, but the authority of God. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:15).
Jesus, in his way of teaching and living, summed up the law and the prophets. Jesus gives us a compendium of what has been said on this subject in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, but it’s not the word that he speaks but the Word that he is that is decisive here, the true summation. Jesus is God’s shorthand, God’s abbreviation, for all that has been spoken and promised in the past; God’s brief capitulation in earthly flesh of all that has gone before. Jesus is unique, not because of what he said but on account of who he is.
We would not really know what the love of God and the love of neighbor was unless we had seen it in Jesus Christ, in the life he lived and the death he died. He offers himself on the cross for the sins of the whole world, as it says in the First Letter of John (1 Jo. 2:2). Jesus says in John’s Gospel that no one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends (Jo. 15:13). Jesus incarnates the love of God and personifies it in himself as he offers the one perfect sacrifice of himself on the cross.
God raised him from the dead, and from that moment his death and resurrection became the good news of what God has done for the life of the world. Love of God and love of neighbor has taken shape in Jesus Christ, and become part of our proclamation. Our confirmands today, along with all of us, will reaffirm this commitment and make it part of our witness. His death and resurrection is recapitulated in us as we gather and worship. Jesus’ new life gets lived out in us, in works of mercy and sacrifice. As we break the bread and share the cup today at this altar, the force and power of God stands in our midst, bringing love and life to each of us in the Person of Jesus Christ.