Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:36).
There are several memorable love stories in the Bible. One is about Tobias, who persists in his love for Sarah and frees her from the power of a demon (The Book of Tobit). Another is the poem to erotic love known as the Song of Songs. But perhaps the most beloved of these stories is from the Book of Ruth.
Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi, returns with her to Bethlehem after the deaths of their husbands. Her faithfulness is preserved in the lines often used as a wedding reading: “Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live, I will live, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
This love story between two women then makes possible a second love story between Ruth and Boaz, who marries her and welcomes her into the genealogy of Israel as the great grandmother of King David and, ultimately, as part of the bloodline of Jesus through Joseph.
These moving stories remind us that the entire Bible is really a love story between God and humanity, played out generation by generation in the covenant God makes with Israel, often depicted as a nuptial relationship. Yet, too easily, the theme of love has been lost in the moral and ritual demands of religion, which has made believers into fearful subjects and God distant and inaccessible.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see some of the stone-faced skepticism of the religious leaders who were constantly trying to trap Jesus into saying something heretical in his teachings. One of the teachers of the law tests Jesus by asking him to say which of the many commandments of Moses was the most important. The wrong answer on something so basic would expose Jesus as ignorant or a fraud.
Jesus answers by reciting the Sh’ma, the common prayer said daily by all Jews that grounded them in the covenant. In doing so, Jesus reminded the leaders that the whole Bible was a love story. If we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, we fulfill the entire Law.
The answer is correct, and it entraps the teacher of the Torah and his companions in the inescapable conclusion that their hateful attempts to bring down Jesus were contradicting their own presumptions about being faithful to God and to the covenant. Without love, they were obscuring the heart of the Law.
Jesus frees us from being anxious about obeying all the commandments and rules of the church. All he asks is that we let love lead us through the day, saying and doing what love suggests in any situation. If we aren’t sure or make a mistake, love always finds a way to try again. If we do our best, love even covers over our sins. This is religion as the Bible meant it to be.