God’s love and love of neighbor

In today’s readings, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is. His answer is:

“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.”

Jesus places love of God at the center of our existence. In Judaism the first commandment is that there is no other god than God. All of the rest of the commandments follow from this one. Jesus emphasizes that this idea that God is at the center of our lives is not merely an intellectual claim to which we give our assent. Rather, it is a matter of relationship. Whom do we love above all else, on whom do we depend in times of distress, and for whom do we go out and do our life’s work? For the Lord.

Indeed, since God is the very source of all love, when we love God with all our heart, it’s God within us that is doing the loving, too—in any act of loving, we are more closely united to God in that very act.

Jesus then sums up the rest of the commandments in terms of love of neighbor as one’s self. We are made to love others—not only family and friends, although these are good and significant relationships—but also to love as Jesus did: to minister to those who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, in need of healing, or otherwise on the margins of society. Following the other commandments also means having more love for other people than for other goods that are less important, such as property or honor . For example, the commandment not to steal places the well being of another person over material goods.

As many have noted, self-love is also part of what Jesus instructs. Proper self-love knows oneself as loved by God in a way that is deeply felt and internalized. This kind of love of self somewhat surprisingly frees us up to be more other centered rather than self-centered. Both those who lack humility and those who lack self-love are too focused on themselves; both conditions can cause a kind of narcissism. (For example, if I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about whether I am “good enough” or conversely how much better I am than another–it’s a big waste of energy.) But when we know that we are loved deeply and unconditionally by God, then a kind of gentler self-love that opens us up to self-gift becomes possible. Energy for work and relationship, care for others, strength to tolerate others’ weaknesses and to forgive are all rooted in a deep relationship of love between God and oneself. God’s love flows from the relationship between God and the self, on to other people.

To this extent, Jesus recognizes that being a “good person” is less about following rules or principles than about the kind of people we become, how are are formed through relationship with God. Loving other people well “flows” from first being loved, and while our family, friends, and community hopefully love us, God’s love goes even deeper and is an even more reliable source of love.

For this reason, spending time every day with God in prayer helps us to stay rooted in what matters: love. We can also notice where we find God in the day, in the love that we receive from other people. God is love and when we are rooted in God’s love, then we are also opened up to love others whom we encounter in the day. Then at night, we can return ourselves again to that love as we rest in God again.