Today Jesus encapsulates the entire Old Testament into two main commandments – love of God (Deut.6:5), and love of neighbour (Lev.19:18). In the Gospel passage, he has just silenced the Sadducees, and the Pharisees come up with their own plot to ensnare him. So, one of them, a legal expert, asks the Lord about the greatest among all the commandments, but Jesus mentions two. By so doing he makes the point that loving God is inseparable from loving our neighbour. St Paul teaches us that love is the greatest theological virtue (1 Cor. 13:13); and love is the “fulfilment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). Further, we learn from St John that: “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
The first branch of Jesus’ answer comes from the “Shema” (“Listen, O Israel”) – the Jewish morning and evening prayer. The Shema is the very first sentence that every Jewish child is meant to memorize, and the very prayer that every pious Jew hopes to be praying at the point of death. That’s how the people saw the love of God. God is our Creator and Saviour and his love is both universal and personal. He loves everyone so much personally that his Son died to atone for our sins, and to open the gates of heaven to everyone.
Ironically, we readily trumpet our love for God, but when it comes to loving our fellow humans the story starts to change. What a paradox! How could I truly love God with all my heart, and yet do not treat my neighbours – those very people whom God loves and suffered to save – with sincere and self-sacrificing respect? How could we claim to truly love God given all the infidelity, hatred, treachery, betrayal, racism, war and genocide that constantly plague humanity? Jesus clearly understands this hypocritical dichotomy and seeks to correct it in our minds. He wants us to realize that the love of God is inseparably bound with the love of neighbour. He wants us to love those around us, to respect and uphold the fundamental dignity of every human person, and to treat others with patience and kindness, even when we do not like them.
As Scripture says: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). The heart symbolizes the centre of knowledge and feelings, the soul is the activating force of life and spring of energy, while the mind is the core of intuition. Therefore, we are called to love the Lord with every fibre of our being, and to love our brothers and sisters as we love ourselves. We all want the best for ourselves, and to be accorded respect and dignity; we want others to reach out and help us when we are in trouble. Accordingly, Jesus wants us to love other people as well, to accord them due respect and dignity, and to do all within our power to assist those in need.
This requires courage and self-sacrifice in imitation of Christ’s own kenotic (self-emptying) love. He is the perfect expression of God’s love and our model of how to love God in our neighbour. Jesus stripped himself of the glories of heaven to take on human flesh in this broken, painful and difficult world. He lived a life of humility, poverty and toil. And he let his enemies humiliate him, unjustly condemn him, scourge him, crown him with thorns, and nail him to a cross. None of these experiences brought him the sort of pleasant feelings we normally associate with love. It was a tough, gruesome experience but he kept on going, driven by his love for us.
It’s a bit like a mother nursing a sick child! She stays up all night, watching and worrying; she cleans and feeds and comforts. How does it all make her feel? Absolutely wasted! And yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way. What about soldiers fighting for their country? How does it feel marching through desert and snow, under enemy fire, night after night? True love transcends mere feelings; it means giving ourselves to God and to others, regardless of convenience. It means being faithful to what is true and right, no matter how we feel. True love is to work for the good of the other; accepting others as they are and not as we would want them to be. It is all about self-giving, and not nice feelings. This is what the crucifix reminds us. It is the image of Christ’s love for us, and of the path we must follow to love like him. It’s a path that requires lasting courage more than passing emotions. It is the only path to lasting joy. As Jesus himself said; “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
The love of neighbour is meant to bear concrete fruits. This is what the message from the First Reading. We are to look after strangers, widows and orphans. The widow of today is no longer just be the poor woman whose husband is dead. The widows for us would include all the men, women and children who are on the margins of society. All those afflicted by poverty, ignorance and disease; all those victims of corruption and greed in society; those denied justice because they cannot afford it; those who face preventable deaths every day because they cannot afford basic healthcare; all the children world who are out of school on account of poverty or war; all those facing bullying, sexual and emotional harassment in the course of their daily work; all the victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation; those persecuted for their faith, gender or race; all the weak and vulnerable, and all those taken advantage of by the rich and powerful – they are the widows of today. And we don’t need to look too far to see one.
May the Lord help us with the courage to love our brothers and sisters always, especially when it does not feel good! Amen.