Why does Jesus call the commandment to love one another a “new” commandment?
Jesus spoke of a “new” commandment only once. On the eve of his passion, he said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). In what way is this commandment new? Is not mutual love required by the previous commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)?
Jesus offers a new measure for love. He says “just as I have loved you” at the very moment when, for love, he gives everything. “Before the Passover celebration, Jesus (…), having loved his own who were in the world, showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1). He begins by washing their feet while saying, “I have given you an example” (verse 15). Then, deeply troubled by the fact that one of the Twelve, the apostle Judas, is going to betray him, he still keeps on loving him, expressing that love by handing him a piece of bread: “He took it and gave it to Judas” (verse 26). And finally, the gift of an example and the gift of a piece of bread culminate in the gift of the commandment: “I give you a new commandment.”
Just before the new commandment there are some enigmatic words: “Now the Son of man has been glorified” (verse 31). How is Christ glorified before he enters into the glory of his Father by his cross and resurrection? He is already glorified, because his glory is to love. That is why his glory is manifested now, when he “shows the full extent of his love.” Judas “went out into the night” to hand him over. But Jesus does not submit passively to the event: while being handed over, he gives himself, continuing to love in a situation that seems hopeless. That is his glory.
With the new commandment, Jesus makes his disciples a part of his own way of life; he enables them to love as he loves. That evening he prayed, “May the love with which you loved me be in them and I in them” (John 17:26). Henceforth he will dwell within them as love; he will love in them. With this gift of the new commandment, Jesus bestows his presence. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Judas’ exit is immediately followed by the institution of the Eucharist; in John’s Gospel, by the gift of the new commandment. Like the Eucharist, the new commandment is a real presence.
That night Jesus “took the cup and said: this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). His commandment is new because it belongs to the new covenant, announced by the prophet Jeremiah: “I will make a new covenant (…); I will place my Law deep within them and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). In the new covenant, the former commandment is given in a new way. God’s Law is no longer engraved on tablets of stone, but written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who unites our will to the will of God.
What is the importance of the commandments in our relationship with God?
According to the apostle John, communion with God is expressed by observing the commandments. “Whoever keeps his commandments remains in God and God in them” (1 John 3:24). On Sinai, God made a covenant with “those who love him and keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). As we go back still further towards the beginning, the Bible tells us that when he created human beings, God gave them a commandment straightaway (Genesis 2:16-17). It is as if, without a commandment, there is no relationship with God.
This ubiquitousness of the commandments can seem burdensome. But, though it may appear paradoxical at first glance, God’s commandments affirm our freedom. Through the commandments, God speaks to us. What we call the “ten commandments” are referred to as the “ten words” in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 34:28). Through the commandments, God speaks to us and invites us to choose (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
God enables the animals to do instinctively what is right. To human beings, he gives the commandments, running the risk of our freedom. “The turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know the ordinance of the Lord” (Jeremiah 8:7). God does not program human beings nor force them to behave in a certain way. God speaks to us. Jeremiah complains about the situation that this can create. But if God does not want to guide us except by speaking to us by his commandments, that is because our free response—whatever it may be—matters more to him than correct behaviour.
One day, a young man said to Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17). Why does Jesus oppose, in his reply, simply keeping the commandments and asking questions about what it is good to do? Commandments are different from information about what is good or evil. Jesus recalls that “only One is good.” Through the commandments, God does not so much communicate knowledge about good and evil as call us to listen and to put into practice what we hear.
Jesus’ reaction makes us think of the first commandment God gave in the Garden of Eden which forbids to “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). This is a curious commandment that calls us, at least to begin with, to give up trying to know good and evil! The commandment asks us to leave this knowledge to God. At the center of human existence it conserves a zone of unknowing, a space free for trusting, for listening to God. The commandments bring to life our relationship to God when we discern in them an echo of the commandment given in paradise, the voice of God that tells us: “Let me be your God; let me show you the way; trust in me!”
Letter from Taizé: 2004/2