How to love God and our neighbor? 

Published 12:37 pm Monday, October 27, 2008

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment, but answers with two.

Around the time of Jesus, it was a contentious issue as to whether the commandments, or even the entire Jewish Law, could be reduced to simple one-liners. Some Rabbis thought it was possible.

If Jesus was trying to sum-up his entire message in such a way, why did he give us two commandments—two lines—rather than one?

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Can’t the love of neighbor be understood as part of what it is to love God? And can we love our neighbor without loving God?

I think most of us would agree that they do somehow go together. On the other hand, it does seem that we like to see loving God and loving our neighbor as two different things.

This is where I can get into one of my favorite topics: that religion and Christianity is as much a doing thing as it is a thinking thing.

Perhaps doing is more important. Thinking may come into it. It should, however, never be the case that you can have the thinking aspect of religion without the doing part.

There is a tendency in Christianity to separate works from belief—that you can somehow have the belief without the works. What I want to suggest is that we tend to see the first commandment, “love of God,” as a “belief”—something in the head, while we see the second, “love of neighbor,” as something we do, that is, being nice to people.

In other words, we tend to reduce our understanding of the “love of God” to some kind of intellectual assent.

We either believe in God or we don’t.

If we don’t believe in God, then we go to parties and tell people that we are atheists. If we believe in God, we tell people that we are “believers.” We may love our neighbors as well. We may be nice to them all the time, but it seems that “love of our neighbor” can be seen as separate from belief in God.

It seems that we can sit at home believing in God without doing anything else.

I think that is where the popularity of TV evangelism comes in. It tells people they don’t need to go to Church; they don’t need to do good works. They can sit at home believing in God, and good works is reduced to sending the TV evangelist money through their credit card.

As a priest working in the media, I have lost count of the number of times people have said to me, “I believe in some kind of God, but I don’t think I need to go to church. I haven’t got time for institutional religion. It’s what you believe that is important.”

Circumstances usually dictate that I have to be polite, so I reply with a “how very interesting.”

What I am actually thinking is that this person could not be more wrong.

It seems to me that this kind of thinking comes from the tendency to see Jesus’ first commandment, “the love of God,” as a belief, something in the head; while we see his second commandment, “the love of neighbor,” as works, something we do, and unconnected from what we believe.

We would be far better of if we did not see love of God and love of neighbor as two separate things.

And, if we have to choose, it would be far better to see them both as works, rather than beliefs.

Sitting at home, believing in God and feeling good, doesn’t get us anywhere.

In the Gospel Jesus is asked for the greatest of the commandments. He does not say love of God alone, but adds love of neighbor alone. Jesus gives them both. He is asked for one commandment and answers with two. Perhaps an indication that he saw them as one and the same thing.

You can only love and believe in God by loving and believing in your neighbor. And you can’t love your neighbor on your own at home. You have to go out and find your neighbor. Find those who need help, and work and worship with those who want to do the same. We can then express communion with our neighbor and with God in communion at Mass.