The love of God and neighbour are the foundation of our Christian religion, our belief in God. Our understanding of Christianity can only be authentic when these two commandments are observed. God is love; all creation is the fruit of his love. Man, created out of love, lives by the divine love that maintains him in existence and showers him with its gifts. Since love is the source of our life, we cannot but love; for love is a fundamental need, an indispensable duty that corresponds to our nature. In today’s Gospel reading, one of the scribes approached Jesus and asked him, which is the first of all the commandments?
Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians (Mark 12:13) as well as the Sadducees (12:18-23) who had approached Jesus to test him; this man approaches Jesus with seemingly more honest intentions and good will. The scribe tries to learn from Jesus as he had observed and wondered at the astuteness of Jesus’ response regarding the resurrection. So, he seeks his wisdom and decided to ask him about the law. Jesus replies by citing the love commandments from Deut.6:5 and Lev.19:18. The two commandments were well known to the Jews, and Jesus just reiterated what they already know. Our relationship with God has a vertical and also horizontal dimension: on the Vertical (Deut.6:5), which is the love of God.
This is the Shema (Hebrew for hear): Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! This is the monotheistic creed of Israel that the faithful recites as part of their daily prayers. It is the greatest commandment of the Torah because it spells out the highest obligation of every person, which is to love the Lord with the combined strength of one’s heart, soul, and mind. By the time of Jesus, the “Shema” was understood to mean that YHWH is not only the one God of the Jews but the one and only God of the whole universe. In a world of polytheism, the Jews were the only people to have been granted this earth-shattering insight: there is but one God, who has created all things and who holds all things in existence by his goodness and power.
To love God is to have a profound reverence and affection for him, to give ourselves over to him and desire to please him above all else. The love he demands is not simply affection or emotion but a commitment to keep the Lord’s covenant. It is the first Hebrew sentence a child learns and it is the utterance with which every Jew is supposed to breath his last. Jesus’ emphatic affirmation of the “Shema Israel” shows that he did not come to reject or overturn Judaism, but to fulfil it. The New Testament never views the proclamation of Christ’s divinity as contrary to the Old Testament revelation that God is one. Rather it is a disclosure of God’s innermost mystery as a communion of Persons.
“We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons”. On the Horizontal, the love of our neighbour (Lev.19:18). This commandment calls us to love our neighbour with the same solicitude with which we naturally care for ourselves. Jesus combines the two Gospels and demonstrates that they really amount to two faces of the same coin. The one commandment of love in two faces now summarizes the 613 commandments of the Old Law. Jesus understands the two commandments and in a radical way demonstrates them in his life and teaching. He says in John 15:13 that there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends.
And in John 13:35 he says that it is by the practice of such love that men and women will know that we are his disciples. In Mark’s account, the two commandments are on equal footing, and one cannot put one of them into practice without also observing the other. All other precepts depend on these two. Jesus is not the only one to assert the necessary and unalterable connection between them. St. John, for example, will write: “if anyone says, “I love God, but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). You cannot claim to love God while neglecting to love your neighbour, or to care for him when he is in need. You can also not have the love of neighbour without the love of God.
Without the love of neighbour, the love of God remains a barren emotion; it remains an abstraction. And without the love of God, love of neighbour is only a refined form of self-love. St John says that if we do not love our neighbour whom we can see, how can we say that we love God whom we do not see. It is only the love of God that is expressed in the love of neighbour that will bring about our salvation, and guarantee peace for our troubled world. St. John puts concisely when he says in 1John 4:16: “God is love and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in him.” Prophet Micah says in Micah 6:8: “This is what the Lord requires of you, to do justice, love tenderly and walk humbly before your God.” Thus, the practice of justice is a necessary ingredient of our love for God. According to Pope Benedict XVI, in his book “Credo for Today, What Christians Believe”, he expounded that love is the content of being a Christian, and it demands we try to live as God lives.
He loves us, not because we are especially good, particularly virtuous, or of any great merit, not because we are useful or even necessary to him; he loves us, not because we are good, but because he is good. He loves us, although we have nothing to offer him; he loves us even in the ragged raiment of the prodigal son, who is no longer wearing anything loveable. To love in the Christian sense means trying to follow in this path: not just loving someone we like, who pleases us, who suits us, and certainly not just someone who has something to offer us or from whom we are hoping to gain some advantage. Being a Christian means having love.
This can be difficult and yet simple. Since we are made in the image of God who loves all creatures, we must extend our love to all human beings. In other words, by linking love of neighbour with love of God, Jesus freed it from every restriction; he taught that our neighbour is not only a relative, a friend or one who lives nearby, or a fellow citizen, but also our enemy, the foreigner, the stranger, the unknown-that is anyone. He made this evident in word, but still more by example, giving his life for all men and women; and dying for them while they were still his enemies (Rom 5:8). Looking at the recent happenings in our country and brutal killings of the innocent youths by the police; and the unleashing of hoodlums and thugs to vandalized properties in our country, can we say we truly possess the love of neighbour at heart. When we don’t place premium on the lives of people, when the Government is not sensitive to the plight of the poor and needy, when politicians store up palliatives meant for the masses in their private homes and stores. Do all these people have the love of God at heart? Let us imbibe a change of heart today. Let us love our neighbour just as God loves us and this should be evident in our families, societies, churches, and in our country Nigeria at large.