The Unity of Love of God and Love of Neighbor, Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), November 5, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
November 5, 2006
Deut 6:2-6; Heb 7:23-28; Mk 12:28-34

1) Building on what he revealed to the Israelites through Moses (first reading), Jesus in today’s Gospel says that the first and greatest commandment, the most important thing we have to do in life, is to “love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, with all [our] soul, with all [our] mind and with all [our] strength.” I would like to begin with what Jesus says about loving God with one-hundred percent of our mind and then seek to describe that love and how it is intrinsically united to what he describes as the second greatest commandment, to “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves].”

2) To love God with all our mind means that we dedicate our brains to him and seek to use the gift of knowledge to grow in love of him. If we’re doing this, we will never think we know “enough” about God, but rather will apply our minds, whatever intelligence we have, to the truths and mysteries of our faith. We’ll use our ability to read to get to read about God. We’ll use our vision to watch programs about God. We’ll use our capacity to hear to listen to others talk about God. We’ll use our whole mind and all our intellectual gifts to try to grow closer to God ,so that having gotten to know him better, we might love him more. There are many means at our disposal. We can love him with all our minds through the Bible he has revealed to us, through our own “theologizing” about the creation and governance of the world, through the teaching of the Catechism, the teachings of the Popes and Councils, as well many solid Catholic books, pamphlets, videos, audio cassettes or Cds, websites, and so much more. If we’re truly trying to love God with all our minds, we will dedicate our “strength” and put our “heart” and “soul,” time and attention into these means of intellectual formation — prioritizing them way above and before spending our minds and energy on mindless television sitcoms or popular novels or magazines or even sporting events like the Pats and the Colts tonight.

3) One of the most important of these fonts of increased knowledge of God are letters from the Pope, whom we believe is not just a “bright guy,” but the man chosen by Christ to be his vicar at our given moment in history. When the Pope writes us, it’s not supposed to be for his benefit, but for ours, and we should see in what he writes an application of how the Lord is calling us to love Him and others at this particular time. Like the Bible, therefore, the pope’s letters, are simply a “must-read” for anyone seeking to love God with all one’s mind. They allow us to stand so-to-speak on the Pope’s shoulders, to see what he sees, and to profit personally from the total loving dedication of his own incredible mind to God and to neighbor — which far exceeds what most of our humble minds are able to accomplish on their own. In January Pope Benedict wrote us an encyclical letter entitled, “God is love,” in which he summarized all of what God has revealed about who He is, who we are, and who we’re called to become. In it the Holy Father made great use of the passages and themes tackled in today’s readings and gave us very clear indications about how to apply them to our daily life. Today I’ll take up some of those insights, in the hope that I might encourage you to pick a copy of the encyclical and either read it or re-read it in light of what Christ is saying to us today in the readings.

4) Early in the encyclical, Pope Benedict in one concise paragraph describes the essence of the connection between today’s first reading and the Gospel. He says, “In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy [today’s first reading] which expressed the heart of his existence: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might’ (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept [in today’s Gospel] this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbor found in the Book of Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (DCE 1). Loving God and neighbor, therefore, is not simply a cold obligation, the Pope is saying, but the natural reaction of someone who has first experienced the saving power of God’s love. All God has done for us is say by his actions, “I love you!” and it leads to our wanting to say in response, “I love you too!,” not because we have to, but because we cannot help not responding to such love.

5) Benedict develops the reality of God’s love in his commentary on the prayer that God had Moses command the Israelites to pray in the first reading, which has been called ever since, the “Shema,” based on the first word of the prayer, “Hear, O Israel, that the Lord our God is God alone.” Benedict says this prayer reveals two fundamental facts:

a. First “all other gods and not God and the universe in which we live has its source in God and was created by him” — The Pope says, “Certainly, the notion of creation is found elsewhere, yet only here does it become absolutely clear that it is not one god among many, but the one true God himself who is the source of all that exists; the whole world comes into existence by the power of his creative Word. Consequently, his creation is dear to him, for it was willed by him and ‘made’ by him. The second important element now emerges…” (DCE 9) as the second fact:

b. “This God loves man. … The one God in whom Israel believes … loves with a personal love, … an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her—but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. (DCE 9).

6) The way the Lord seeks to heal the human race is through the action and example of the fullness of divine love which man is called to imitate and reciprocate. This is how Jesus unites the “first and greatest commandment” of the love of God with the “second and similar” commandment of the love of neighbor. Man is called into a communion with the love of God, in which he loves God and neighbor just as God loves us. Pope Benedict describes the mechanism and consequences of this communion in love in a beautiful and deep paragraph on the Eucharist. He writes that the sacrament of the Eucharist “is social in character, for in sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants. As Saint Paul says, ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Cor 10:17). Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become ‘one body,’ completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself” (DCE 14).

7) The Pope continues by saying that this connection between the Eucharist and love of God and neighbor was seen by the early Christians who called the Eucharist, agape, from the Greek word used to describe Christ’s type of total self-giving and sacrificial love: “We can thus understand how agape also became a term for the Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us. Only by keeping [this] in mind … can we correctly understand Jesus’ teaching on love. The transition which he makes from the Law and the Prophets to the twofold commandment of love of God and of neighbor, and his grounding the whole life of faith on this central precept, is not simply a matter of morality — something that could exist apart from and alongside faith in Christ and its sacramental re-actualization. Faith, worship and ethos [how we behave toward others] are interwoven as a single reality which takes shape in our encounter with God’s agape. … ‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist that does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented…’. (DCE 14).

8 ) Next, the Pope, following the Lord, tries to get specific about the neighbor we’re called to love as ourselves: Until the time of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37), he writes, “the concept of ‘neighbor’ was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor. The concept of ‘neighbor’ is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now. The Church has the duty to interpret ever anew this relationship between near and far with regard to the actual daily life of her members. … We should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Mt 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God (DCE 15).

9) Pope Benedict tightened the screw about this teaching on love of neighbor by turning to the first letter of St. John, which states, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). The pope comments that this teaching emphasizes “the unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbor. One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbor or hate him altogether. Saint John’s words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God” (DCE 16).

10) The Holy Father that real love of God means sharing God’s love and that transforms our love of each other: “Love of neighbor,” the pope states, “consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. … Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave” (DCE 18 ).

11) He then immediately goes on to say that, therefore, this two-fold commandment is really one command, because we either love both God AND neighbor or we fail to love both God and neighbor: “Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbor which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties,’ then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper,’ but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first” (DCE 18 ).

12) To love God and neighbor in the way Christ and his vicar specify today is the “first” and “greatest” thing we need to do in life. If we achieve everything else in life but fail in this, our life will have been a waste. But if we fail at everything else in life but do this, then one day we will be called saints! Today as we come together to celebrate this “agape,” this love feast of the Eucharist in which we first receive his love and then are told by him to “do this in memory of me” — to give our body and blood, our sweat and tears out of love for our neighbor — we ask him to fill us with his own divine love, so that we might love him with one-hundred percent of our mind, heart, soul and energy, and love our neighbor in the same way he has loved us and has called us to love ourselves.