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

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 6:2-6

Moses spoke to the people, saying:"Fear the LORD, your God,and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life. Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them, that you may grow and prosper the more, in keeping with the promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers, to give you a land flowing with milk and honey. "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today."

Hebrews 7:23-28

Brothers and sisters: The levitical priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, but Jesus, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away. Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them. It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens. He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.

Mark 12:28B-34

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus replied, "The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.' And 'to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

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.

Posted: November 4, 2018

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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