Today we reflect on the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. These two commandments sum up our whole purpose in life. They are the foundation of the entire law and the prophets, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel. Today’s first reading gives us practical wisdom on how to love our neighbor, while the second reading tells us how the Thessalonians turned from false gods to worship the one true God.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. Today they are again trying to trap him, this time by asking him to identify “the greatest commandment in the law.” The Old Testament had already made it clear to the Chosen People that they were called to love God. Jesus starts his answer by quoting a well-known passage from Deuteronomy (cf. Dt. 6:5), which he then declares to be “the greatest and the first commandment.” But then he goes far beyond the scope of the original question and says, “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus does not stop after stating which commandment is the greatest because love of God and love of neighbor must go together. We cannot have one without the other. St. John puts it this way: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jn 4:20-21).
Love is what gives life meaning and brings us true happiness. When we love in truth, we are like God, who is Love. In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (Familiaris Consortio), Pope St. John Paul II says: “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (FC 11; cf. CCC 1604, 2392). In his first Encyclical Letter, The Redeemer of Man (Redemptor Hominis), he writes: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (RH 10). It cannot be overstated that love is essential for us. If we do not love, we cannot discover our true selves. In fact, we destroy ourselves. We turn the spiritual energy of love, a self-gift meant for others, back toward ourselves, turning it into an unhealthy self-love.
There is a true and healthy form of self-love and a false, unhealthy self-love. Jesus says that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, implying the need for true self-love. The proper way of self-love is to love ourselves as God loves us. When we truly love ourselves, we choose what is for our eternal good. False self-love is actually self-destructive, for we choose what satisfies us at the moment without concern for our eternal good.
Genuine love is not an automatic response. It is a decision, an act of the will. This is why it can be “commanded.” We can obey the commandment to love because we can choose to love. Love, then, is not the same as liking someone, which tends to come naturally to us. Love takes effort. We can love even those whom we do not like. Very often we have a certain natural aversion to people who are different from us. Such people are represented in the Scriptures – as in today’s Exodus reading – by the “aliens,” meaning foreigners or any stranger. We also may have a natural dislike for people who make demands on our charity. These people are represented by “the poor, the widows, and the orphans.” The Lord tells us that just as he “hears the cry of the poor,” so must we. We cannot love only those who appeal to us or who benefit us, because that is not authentic love.
The readings, then, call us to true love of self, which reflects God’s love for us, true love of neighbor, which reflects God’s love for them, and finally, true love of God. How are we to love God? Not only when his will appeals to us or seems to benefit us, but with our whole heart, soul, and mind. This is how God loves us – with his whole being. When we love, we become true icons of God in the world.
Why do I find it difficult to love my neighbor as myself? Why is it also impossible for me to love my neighbor if I do not truly love myself? How has love given me true meaning and true happiness in my life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.