In replying to the scribe's question, “which is the first of all commandments”, Jesus answers with the two great commandments, that is, to love God and to love our neighbour. It is easy to overlook the solemn call that precedes the first of the two great commandments: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD.” These are the first ten words of the Ten Commandments. Our Lord does not leave them out nor abbreviate them. They are significant therefore. In these ten words comes the starting point or the basic principle for all the rest of the commandments.
What is it saying? It is saying that God loved us first. God had chosen to reveal Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to make them a great nation. And when God’s people were enslaved He revealed His special care for His people through the prophet Moses who led God’s people to the Promised Land. As the adopted people of Israel we too have been loved first by God. By the waters of baptism He has delivered us from the slavery of sin; and He has poured His grace into our hearts through the Holy Spirit He has given to us.
The first ten words tell us that God loves us first, and the Ten Commandments that follow show us how we are to love God back. The two Great Commandments of Jesus summarise the Ten Commandments and indeed the whole Law. The commandments to love God above all, to worship no other gods, to keep God’s name holy, to keep the Sabbath, are how we are to fulfil the first Great Commandment. The second Great Commandment is the pouring forth of this love of God to our neighbour by obeying the rest of Ten Commandments: honouring our father and mother, not killing human life, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness, not lusting after others, not coveting our neighbour’s goods. Obedience to these Ten Commandments is how we show we love God who loved us first. Disobedience of these Commandments is a grave sin against God, or in Catholic language they are mortal sins. To disobey any of these commandments is to shut ourselves off from God’s life of grace. This is not because we are being punished by God for not keeping his ‘rules’, but because the action we have chosen to do by our own free will takes us deliberately away from God’s life of communion and grace.
God loved us first and He has even sacrificed Himself on the Cross for our salvation, to save us from our sins. Our response to His love is obedience – obedience to the Commandments He has given us.