March 29, 2019


Love God and your neighbor

Perhaps, before Lent ends, we could take a few minutes to meditate on what St. Paul called the greatest virtue—love (1 Cor 13:13).

We should start with the event that Lent leads up to: the amazing fact that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). That’s more than just a sign that is sometimes held up at sporting events; it’s our belief that God loves us so much that he sent his Son, “Who, though he was in the form of God” (Phil 2:6), “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

In return, what does God ask for? Jesus answered that question very directly: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:37-40).

Love of God and love of neighbor are the most important, and consistent, commands to come from the Gospels and the letters in the New Testament. Perhaps St. John is the most insistent. He wrote, “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).

St. Paul, besides telling us that love is the greatest virtue, says that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . . . The commandments . . . are summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13: 8-10).

And who is my neighbor? Surely we know the answer to that question, which a “scholar of the law” asked Jesus. Jesus replied with the story of the man who had been injured by robbers and who was cared for by a much-despised alien from the country of Samaria after both a priest and a Levite passed him by. We know it as the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Lk 11:25-37).

How do we show love of our neighbor? St. James told us clearly that “just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:17), and he gave us a good example: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” (Jas 2:15-16).

That’s one example. But Jesus was even more explicit. He said that we must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill and visit the prisoner (what we know as the corporal works of mercy). Those who don’t do those things, he said, “will go off to eternal punishment” (Mt 25:46).

That’s pretty harsh, to say the least. But that’s what he said will happen “when the Son of Man comes in his glory” (Mt 25:31) at the end of the world and judges us. That’s when the same person who suffered and died for us will condemn those of us who do not perform the works of mercy.

The good news, though, is that Jesus calls those of us who do perform those works “the righteous,” and he says that “the righteous [will go] to eternal life” (Mt 25:46).

The way for us to attain eternal life, therefore, is clearly set out for us. We must love God, and we must show our love for God by loving our neighbor, whoever is in need. And we do that through our works of mercy.

It’s something to think about during this Lenten season, and then resolve to do that throughout the rest of the year.

—John F. Fink

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