Love of God Entails Love of Neighbor

by Edmond Lo

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 22:20-26

Thus says the LORD:

"You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.

"If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate."

1 Thessalonians 1:5C-10

Brothers and sisters:

You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves openly declare about us what sort of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

Love of God Entails Love of Neighbor
Edmond Lo

The first reading of this Sunday is part of the so-called Book of Covenant (Ex 20:22-23:19), which contains a collection of mainly casuistic laws. These are secular laws that emerged from practice; they serve to build up a realistic social order in a particular historical and cultural situation. They are developed from the deposit of divine law, but are NOT directly divine law; as such they are subject to further development and even correction. Reading the Torah without understanding this background often causes people to question the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as some of these casuistic laws may appear dubious from the perspective of current moral standards.

Another form of law in the Pentateuch is the apodictic law. This code of law is pronounced in the name of God himself; as such it provides a platform for critiquing and revising the rules of casuistic law. Best known among the apodictic laws is the Decalogue. Interestingly, included in the Book of Covenant are two parts of the apodictic law: Ex 22:20, which is in the first reading, and Ex 23:9-12; both of which emphasize man's social responsibility for the marginalized: the aliens, the poor, the widowed, and the orphans. What is the significance of all this? Read on.

The fundamental norm in the Torah, on which everything depends, is the exclusive worship of the one God, YHWH. Love of God, to put it simply, overshadows everything. The inclusion of the social responsibility for the poor, widows, orphans, and aliens means that love of neighbor is just as important as love of God. The two commandments are inseparable and intertwined. For what is love of God without love of neighbor? “Neighbor” is understood in this context as recognition of God's immediate presence in the weak and poor.

Jesus affirmed this teaching clearly in the gospel reading when he put together the two commandments: first, “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”; and second, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37, 39). The theological dimension of love, fixated as it is on God, is without substance unless it is complemented by its social dimension, i.e. love of neighbour. It is only when we love in this way that love is expressed in its truest and fullest form. No wonder Jesus went so far as to say, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments" (Mt. 22:40).

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Book 1, pp.122-127.
R. Hamel and K. Himes, Introduction to Christian Ethics – A Reader, pp. 10-13.


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