“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 first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:36-39)
Of late, because of a heavy emphasis from within the Church, and the rise of humanism outside (even in corporate America which now encourages “service hours”), the focus of Jesus’ response to the question of the greatest commandment falls upon the “love of neighbor.” Yet the commandment is not so easily reduced. So why does Jesus respond to the Pharisee, who is also a lawyer, in such a way? Why this order? Can’t we just love each other and call it good enough?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church opens with this line: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” In other words, our very existence is purely a result of God’s goodness, therefore, we can only know ourselves in light of this “sheer goodness.”
But this is not all the first paragraph of the CCC says. “For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man.” The good God doesn’t just plop humans out of His sheer goodness so they can flop around the earth for several decades, instead, he “draws close” to man. That’s Catechism for “love.” God creates out of His infinite goodness – He doesn’t need man, but He freely creates. And, He shows Himself not to be a distant Creator, but also a loving Father who “draws close.”
Note the emphasis on God’s action – it’s all God’s initiative. He creates and He draws close to man. God initiates out of goodness and love. Man has done nothing at this point to formulate his existence, or to establish an identity for himself. It is all given. And a response is demanded – “He calls man to seek Him, to know Him, and to love Him with all his strength.” For this reason, “our hearts are restless until we rest in Him.”
We love [God] because He first loved us (Cf. 1 John 4:19). Our love is always a response and nothing short of our entire lives should be given back. This is how the restless heart syndrome, the loneliness, lack of desire and ennui, the complete uncertainty about identity, is solved – by encountering His love and opening the whole of my life to it by giving all of myself away. We know His love is real because the “I” changes.
But, we run into a problem. Sin corrupts our nature and makes us forgetful. We forget whose we are. Into the face of a real death – a separation from our Life Source – comes the promised Messiah. “In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life” (CCC 1).
So far we’ve talked only about God’s love for man, a Love so great that it took flesh and allowed us to return to the Father. But, according to the passage from Matthew quoted above, Jesus includes a necessary second command – to love neighbor as yourself.
As you surmised from the title of this post, I want to talk about the “as yourself” par
t. We’ve already done this to a great degree. When we see ourselves in light of the fundamental truths of God’s creation out of His sheer goodness, and Fatherly love for us unto the point of giving His Son, we learn how we are to “love ourselves.” Far from any self-infatuation or narcissism, this love of self is rooted in the truth of our being. This truth has been clouded by sin, and remains cloudy for most of our time on earth. But God’s great love for man cut through the bonds of sin and death in the Person of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Hence we learn a gentle and merciful way that we can look upon ourselves. Through the lens of Divine Revelation (as interpreted by the Church) one can begin to look upon himself with the affection by which God sees man.
If these truths don’t penetrate to the core of life, we become slaves to circumstance, defined by the arbitrary judgments of the world, reduced to hatred because of physical appearance, our bodies become objectified by our passions, and so forth.
And if we view ourselves (body and soul) in this manner, it is no wonder that disregard for neighbor, hatred of neighbor, or objectification of neighbor reign supreme.
Thus the ordering found in the “greatest commandment” makes complete sense. God’s love initiates and demands a response (love of God). And this love transforms the way I view myself (“as yourself”). This new vision then transforms every interaction with my neighbor, toward whom I necessarily have a new sensitivity an affection (“love your neighbor”).