Which Is the Greatest Commandment?

Cycle A  |  ORDINARY TIME  |  WEEK 30

– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London


Every religion has a core message. African Traditional Religion preaches justice – live and let live. Islam preaches obedience to the will of Allah. Christianity preaches love. Responding to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, Jesus affirms that love of God is the first and the greatest commandment. The second which equates to the first, is love of neighbour as oneself. Instructively, Jesus concludes that on these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets – the whole body of Jewish teaching. Thus, Judaism is based, not on rules and regulations as the Pharisees (mis)understand and champion it, but on something they have completely overlooked – love.

In effect, all our love and energies should be directed primarily towards the highest good which is God, not at the good things of this world – wealth, pleasure, fame, power etc, not even country or family. These are all good in themselves but they can only serve their meaningful purpose in one’s life to the extent that God is the centre of one’s life. While love of oneself is not directly specified, loving your neighbour as yourself presupposes that you love yourself. Hence, loving oneself is ironically the basis of all loving. When we love ourselves and similarly love others, God who is primarily loved in others is implicitly loved.

The call to love oneself should not be mistaken for a call to selfishness. On the contrary, it is a call to be content with oneself which counters the greed of selfishness. It may sound odd but the reality is that many people do not really love themselves that much. A good number have low self-esteem; they don’t very much like what they see in the mirror and would dread people getting to know them as they see themselves. This perhaps explains why so much is spent on wears, make-up, and image. Many people chase various status symbols to show that they have ‘arrived’ – mansions, cars, clothes and accessories are all carefully chosen to enhance image and make one feel better. There is an obsession with ‘famous brands’ and these sell more than quality.

The escape of many into alcohol and drugs, and the increasing rate of teenage suicides especially in the Western world of plenty, entertainment and pleasure, is largely because so many have little love for themselves in the inside and also think that no one else really loves or could love them. If we have difficulty loving ourselves, it will be difficult to open up in love to others. No one can give what they don’t have. But if I’m able to love myself in spite of my shortcomings, not minding what people think of me – that’s their problem, not mine, then I can be open to loving and bearing with others in spite of their own imperfections.

Now, when we speak of love of neighbour, our minds turn immediately to “works of charity”. But before “beneficence” there is “benevolence,” that is, before doing good there is willing good i.e. goodwill. Charity must be sincere, without hypocrisy (Romans 12:9). So called “charitable” acts can be done for ulterior motives that have nothing to do with love: to impress, to earn heaven, to ease one’s conscience etc. Thankfully, true charity can be exercised by all; it is not the reserve of only a few where the rich and the healthy give, and others – the poor and the sick, receive. All can give and receive.

Moreover, in equating the love of God with the love of neighbour, Jesus makes clear that one does not love others just for God’s sake or to please God. One does not go to God through others but one seeks, finds and loves God IN others. Remember, “As often as you did it to the very least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Love here, according to the First Reading, involves treating every person with deep respect, justice and compassion. It is a sincere desire that every person experience what is the very best for them.

The teaching that equates the love of God with love of neighbour is quite pertinent in a world where some supposedly feel motivated by the love of God to hate and destroy their fellow human beings. And we are not just talking about the activities of jihadists. The persecution of Jesus and his followers was championed by well-meaning religious people motivated by what they believed to be zeal and love for God. Paul as Saul was a good example of this travesty.

Jesus prophesied that “an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2). There are many whose Christianity doesn’t extend to being open to people outside their own group. But, “Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Christianity’s message of love agrees with her view of life as a pilgrimage – the common journey of humanity towards God. When a group makes a journey, paths must inevitably cross and people might even step on people. Once on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the UK, I kept mistakenly stepping on the heel of the lady in front of me in the course of the one mile rosary procession. This happened a couple of times more even after my apologies and sincere resolve to stop it. On occasions, the lady turned to give me a wry smile of disapproval but then she moved on.

If such a prayerful short walk couldn’t happen without incidents, imagine how incident-prone the lifelong journey of humanity will be: a moving crowd of unrelated people with different values and languages. If people begin to retaliate when paths inevitably begin to cross, there’ll be a traffic jam in the journey of life. In an increasingly globalised and multi-cultural world, without love, humanity is heading towards a big bang. In his Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul notes that love is patient and kind, overcomes anger and forgets offences. Love excuses everything and endures all things.

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