Why is the love of God verified by the love of neighbours?

by May Tam
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 6:2-6

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 12:28B-34

When asked about the greatest commandment of the Law, Jesus quotes two biblical passages. The first is known as the Shema by the Jews, that “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt 6:5). The other is a passage from Leviticus, that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Why does Jesus place two commandments on an equal plane and make them into one dual commandment? Why does He make the two precepts into one law, like two sides of a coin, inseparable from one another? Is it not enough to love God alone and above all? Why is the love of God verified by the love of neighbours?

The first part of the commandment is easily understood - that one's whole being (heart, soul, mind and strength) should love God for He is the Creator, the source of all things. God's divine attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence) deserve our reverence and awe but loving Him out of duty and command does not inspire true love. Our love for Him is indeed a reciprocal love, “We love Him because He first loved us” (Jn. 4:19). The pinnacle of His love is the giving of His only son to die on the cross for us (rf Jn. 3:16, Rom. 5:8). Though this unconditional and incomprehensible display of love is beyond our understanding, our natural instinct moves us to want to love Him back. But how? How can we love God who is so magnificent and awesome but transcendent, whom we cannot see or touch?

Jesus elucidates the first part of the commandment by revealing it in the second part of how this can be fulfilled. Jesus teaches us that the way to love the invisible God is by loving our visible neighbours. As John says in his first letter, “How can he who does not love his brother, whom he sees, love God, whom he does not see?” (1 Jn 4:20). And he also says this: “Behold what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God; and such we are” (1 Jn 3:1). If we all are His children, then we all are brothers and sisters. “No one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God, nor anyone who does not love his brother” (1 Jn 3:10). That is why the love of God is verified by the love of neighbours; the two acts are truly inseparable.

In the second part of the commandment, Jesus also sets forth the basis of a Christian life, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). The principle expression of the virtue of God's children is their love for one another (rf 1 Jn 3:11, 4:7-8). Jesus Himself is the perfect model for He practices what He teaches; He has loved God and His neighbours unto death. If we want to follow Jesus, we too, must love, not only theoretically but also practically. Theoretically, one may be willing to lay down one's life for another, and yet on the practical everyday level, one may neglect the most basic acts of charity.

Which is easier then? To love God or to love our neighbours? At first glance, it may seem that the latter is easier since loving God implies obedience in keeping all His commandments and that may seem difficult at times. But on second thought, loving someone who is all loving and all good is very logical and requires little effort. Contrarily, human interactions often involve conflicts and misunderstandings. To love someone who has unlikable character or someone who mistreats us is against our human nature and requires far more effort to do so. In order to acquire such a virtue, we must live a prayerful life of faith. A prayerful life that anchors our faith will help us to abide in God no matter what our feelings may, at times, tell us. Confidence in prayer and trust in God's love, we strive to become God's instrument of love, for loving our neighbours reveals His love to them.