The Most Important Thing
November 5, 2006
What is more important than anything else? What would we value above every other thing? The Greek philosopher Plato thought that this was the most crucial question that anyone could ask. In fact, he set up an exercise to determine it. He asked his students to picture their life as a big triangle and to place at the base of the triangle everything they valued, everything that they thought was important or noteworthy. Once that was done, Plato encouraged his students to raise those things that they valued to the apex of the triangle. Now of course as they pushed things up, there was less and less space. And so things that were less important had to be left aside. Finally when they reached the very top of the triangle, there was room for only one thing. That thing, Plato said, was the one most important thing.
Now I am quite sure that Jesus never knew of Plato’s exercise. And it might seem that if he engaged in it, he would be unable to determine only one thing that is most important. Because when the scribe in today’s gospel asks him to pick one commandment, the most important one, the one that would sit at the top of the triangle, Jesus gives two commandments: that we should love God with all our heart, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. So it seems that Jesus cannot narrow it down to one. But I would suggest to you that this would be an inaccurate understanding of Jesus’ teaching. The two commandments that are given are actually two components of one great commandment. Neither of those two commandments can function independently. Both are necessary. Each is one side of the same coin, together forming the one great commandment that is most important of all.
Since this is Jesus’ central teaching, it would serve us well to reflect why we need both of these commandments, why neither can stand on its own. Or to put this in other terms, why we cannot love our neighbor without loving God, and why we cannot love God without loving our neighbor.
Let us take the easier question first. Why is it impossible to love God without loving our neighbor? The answer is simple. Unless we are willing to love our neighbor, unless we’re willing to give ourselves in service to those in need, unless we’re willing to reach out in generosity and sacrifice, our love of God is hypocrisy. If we are unable to love those around us, our prayer to God and our love of God is empty. If we are unwilling to give of ourselves to others, then our love of God is merely a matter of words or pious practices. It might make us feel good, but it has no substance. It is not based in reality. The first letter of John tells us that those who say they love God but hate their brothers and sisters are liars. Because how could they say that they love God who they cannot see and at the same time refuse to love their brothers and sisters who they do see? Love of God without love of neighbor is empty. It is hypocrisy.
How about the other way around? Why is love of neighbor without love of God deficient? Why do we need to love God if we are truly going to love our neighbor? This is a more difficult question, isn’t it? But the answer is this: love of God gives us the freedom to love others even when it is difficult, even when it is not all that practical. It is easy to love those who love us in return, but how can we love those who hurt us? How can we love our enemies? We cannot love them for their sake, but we can love them for God’s sake. We can love them because we love God. Why would you go to visit your grandmother with Alzheimers? She does not even know who you are. You do not go to visit her for her sake; you visit her for God’s sake. It is your love of God that motivates you to visit even when she cannot realize you are there. Why might you choose to recycle or conserve energy? It does not make that much difference. For the little bit that you are able to save or conserve, thousands are constantly upping their consumption. Yet you can choose this action of conserving, not for the earth’s sake, but for God’s sake, because it is the right thing to do.
The love of God gives us the ability to love others and to love the earth, even when that love is not reciprocated, even when it produces few results. Our Jewish brother and sisters call this kind of loving a “mitzvah.” It means “it is commanded.” We do it because God expects it of us, and we love the God who loves us. This kind of loving is free. It is free from the limitations of strategies, the limitations of success. We love because God asks us to love, and that love is without any strings attached.
Jesus gives us a great commandment, but that great commandment has two essential parts: love of God and love of neighbor. Both are required. Love of God without love of neighbor is empty. Love of neighbor without love of God is limited to only love which is convenient and practical. But these two loves together form one great commandment. They sit at the very pinnacle of the triangle of life. They are the most important thing. They are our entry into the kingdom of God.
The Beauty of Loving
November 4, 2012
Today’s gospel contains the great commandment of Jesus: to love God with all of our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We all know that this commandment this is central to our faith. But the fact that it is central does not make it easy. This is especially true of the second part: to love our neighbor as ourselves. What makes this command so difficult is that it is ongoing. When it comes to the people we live with, work with, go to school with, all the people we see on a regular basis, it is not a question of loving them once. We are asked to love them again and again, day after day.
So how do we love in this way? G.K. Chesterton answered this question by posing another. He asked, “When God made all the daisies in the world did God make them all at once with one fell swoop or did God make them one-by-one?” Chesterton suggests that God made them one-by-one. God made the first daisy and said, “Whoooh, that’s beautiful!” and then with a childlike excitement said, “I think I’ll make another one.” God made the second daisy and said, “Wow! That is as beautiful as the first! I think I’ll make a third!” This continued until all the daisies in the world were created.
Chesterton suggests that loving is like this. If we are going to love in an ongoing way we need to appreciate the beauty of the person we love and the beauty of our act of loving them. We need to remember: Why is that I was attracted to my spouse? What do I feel about my husband or my wife that is beautiful and good? Where do I see goodness and beauty in my children? What is it about the person at work or school that is noble, that is worthy of love? When we can see such beauty and goodness, it enables us to love again and again.
If Jesus’ command is simply a burden or an obligation, it is difficult to find the strength to keep following it. But when we appreciate the beauty in the people that we love and the beauty in the act of loving them, we can continue loving day after day. That is how the world became full of daisies. That is how you can love your neighbor as yourself.
The Word, “Neighbor”
November 4, 2018
The words we accept from other persons shape our lives. The names we choose to include within our vocabulary influence what we see. If you run into somebody who has just come from a visit to Toledo, and you ask that person, “How was your trip?” If the person responds, “Toledo is a dump,” that’s very different than if they say, “Toledo is a treasure.” Even if at some future date you travel to Toledo yourself, the words you carry with you will influence what you see and how you evaluate whether Toledo is a dump or a treasure.
If you are at a party, and someone comes up to you and says, “I would like to introduce my colleague,” that’s a very different than if they say, “I would like to introduce my friend,” or “I would like to introduce my competitor.” Even if you speak for some time to the person to whom you’ve been introduced, your conversation will be guided by the words “colleague,” “competitor,” or “friend.”
Words influence how we see. Jesus knew this truth well. This is why he uses the word that he does in today’s gospel. When a scribe comes up to him and asks what is the most important commandment, Jesus gives us the great double command of love. We are to love God and we are to love others. Who are the others we are called to love? Everyone. It is clear from Jesus’ life and teaching that we are called to love not only family and friends, but the stranger, the sinner, even our enemy. But in his commandment, Jesus does not say we are to love “everyone.” He says we are to love “our neighbor.” The word neighbor is important. The word “neighbor” means everyone, but it is a warmer term than “everyone” or “humanity.” Neighbor implies a proximity, a closeness, a connection between us and those we are called to love. Jesus uses the word neighbor to remind us that every person is valuable in God’s sight and that we are connected to every person insofar as we are all sons and daughters of God. So when we love the stranger, the sinner, our enemy, we are loving our neighbor.
Now, if we accept Jesus’ word “neighbor,” it makes a difference in the way we live. There is a difference between going to work and saying, “I have to deal with my boss who is an autocrat,” and going to work and saying, “I have to deal with my boss who is a neighbor.” It’s not the same thing vote on Tuesday against a candidate who is “a crook,” and cast your vote against a candidate who is “a neighbor.” You might vote against a candidate, but if she or he is a neighbor, there will be more respect in your disagreement. There is a difference between seeing the people approaching our southern border as “a caravan of illegals” and seeing them as “a migration of neighbors.” Now, of course, in all these circumstances, we still have to decide how to deal with a difficult boss, who we are going to vote for or against, and if and how the people on our southern borders may enter our country. But don’t kid yourselves. The words you choose to name people influence the decisions you make concerning them.
Jesus says that we are to love our neighbor. It is up to us to choose whether we will accept Jesus’ word or not. But we should choose carefully, because the words we choose to accept or not accept, shape who we are and the world in which we live.
October 31, 2021
Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Mark 12:28b-34
Today’s readings demonstrate a continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between the Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus. In the gospel, Jesus gives us his Great Commandment: to love God and to love our neighbor. But this teaching of Jesus is not a new invention. He takes it from the Old Testament, as today’s first reading makes clear. In fact, Jesus is only able to give us the great commandment because he was a Jew. He knew, loved, and followed the Jewish law. This truth should remind us to avoid any attempt to categorize the Old Testament as a testament of fear and judgement, in contrast to the New Testament as a testament of mercy and love. In fact, the New Testament is only able to proclaim mercy and love, because God was already revealed as such in the Old Testament.
So, the two testaments speak to us today with one voice. What do they ask of us? They ask us to listen. Both Jesus and the Deuteronomy use the great Shema of the Jewish Tradition. Shema is a Hebrew word which means “Listen.” Our readings translate it as “Hear, Hear, Oh Israel.” The Shema is saying, “Pay attention. What God is about to ask from you is important. You don’t want to miss this. It will make a huge difference. Listen: Love God, Love your neighbor.”
But why should we listen? Deuteronomy tells us that we should listen because if we follow God’s commands, we will grow and prosper. You see, the Great Commandment to love is not given for God’s benefit, but for our benefit. The commandment of love is not some hurdle we have to jump over to demonstrate that we are holy, or a test we need to pass to show that we believe. The great commandment of love is given to us as a blessing, as a way to make us happy and joyful.
So, the only question left is this: Do we listen? Do we recognize that loving God and our neighbor is what makes life worth of living? When we look at all that we have, our family, our friends, our home, our employment, do we sit back and say, “Good, I’m satisfied”? Or do we realize that all our possessions come from God’s love and call us to love God in return? The Jewish law tells us that when we thank God with all of heart and mind and strength, it is then that we are truly alive. When we encounter a person who irritates us or who disagrees with us personally or politically, do we push that person aside, demean him or her, or take on a socially accepted silence? Or do we recognize that Jesus is calling us to love that person as we love ourselves? As difficult as that is, whatever success we might have at loving, that love will make us a happier, more joyful person.
So, Jesus and the Old Testament speak in one voice. They tell us that if we love God and love our neighbor, we will have a deeper, more successful life. The message of both testaments is clear. All we need to do is listen.