A “scholar of the law”—in other words, a lawyer—asks Jesus a tricky question: “Of the ten great commandments of Moses, and of all the 613 commandments found in the Torah, which is the greatest?” he asks. Which is the one God is really serious about? Which is the commandment I really cannot break if I want to get to heaven?
And Jesus takes his question seriously: “This is the One,” he replies: “Love God.” Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love God with everything you’ve got, from the heart. St. Augustine famously said, “Love God, and do what you will.”
But, Jesus continues, “There is a Second Commandment. You, my dear scholar of the law, didn’t ask for it, but you need it as much as you need the First Commandment.” And that second commandment is this: love your neighbor as yourself. “Neighbor” comes from the German nachbar, meaning, “he who is near you.” The guy next to you at that moment. Could be on a bus, could be in class, could be at home in the living room. Whoever is right there, at that moment: he’s your neighbor, and he’s the one you’ve got to love. You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your “neighbors”—they mostly just show up, and often enough, at rather inconvenient times.
Jesus thinks we need this second commandment; in fact, he insists on it, even though the lawyer only asked for one commandment. I wonder why? Perhaps because, well, how do we know if we are actually keeping the First Commandment? God after all is a hidden God, a God of silence. If I don’t love him, he doesn’t throw a fit. If I don’t visit him at Mass or say my morning prayers, he doesn’t frown at me. But, if I neglect to call my mother on Sunday, she might mention it during our next phone call. If I give my roommate the silent treatment, he will reproach me sooner or later (in fact, I don’t have a roommate, but I speak hypothetically). If I don’t pay my electric bill, someone will let me know. Loving our neighbor can be measured. Neighbors keep us accountable, because how I love my neighbor is how I love God (“whatever you do to the ‘least’ of my brethren,” Jesus said—you know, the ones who always get picked last for basketball teams—“you do to me”). Show kindness to that nerd at school, and you show kindness to me. Love your wife when she’s screaming at you, and you love me, Jesus says.
One Law; Three People to Love
So we have two commandments, two people to whom we must show loving kindness: God, and the guy next door. But there’s a third person, and Jesus names that person too: yourself. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But how much do I love myself? A person who treats others badly might observe that he is loving others as he loves himself. He just doesn’t love himself very much. Each of us, after all, is God’s son or daughter, and we are commanded to love each person God has made, including that person who lives inside my own skin.
So, we have three to love: God, neighbor, and self, in that order. Some people, especially those who have had rough childhoods, may need to learn to love themselves before they can love others, but it is certain that love of God comes before everything and everyone. We fulfill that First Commandment first and foremost by praying. “Love consists in this,” wrote St. John in his first letter: “Not that we have loved God, but that he first loved us.” Love of God is essentially receiving his love, not fighting it—receiving it like a little baby receives milk from his mother’s breast, or like a little girl lets herself be scooped up into her daddy’s lap. And that happens in prayer, in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, or in our room with the iPod turned off, or even on a freeway stuck in traffic, listening, and loving Him back.
This is how Our Lady received God, when the angel came to her. She listened, and she asked a few questions, and she surrendered her whole heart, her whole soul, her whole mind to God’s perfect will. “Let it be done to me according to your word,” she said. Easier said than done, but not impossible for anybody. So let’s follow Our Lady, and give ourselves to God, as he gives himself to us.