In the twenty-second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus provides us with the great summary of the Law, which He outlined as the absolute heart of His teaching, and in the light of which we must judge all our endeavours to follow Him:
‘But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sad′ducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”’
We must love God and neighbour – this was at the core of all that God had taught His people during the Old Covenant, so that Jesus could say He was truly coming not to abolish those teachings, but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). Later on, Saint Paul would have to write against an antinomian spirit which claimed the freedom to cast off any obligation to moral rules or precepts, and remind people that the freedom of a Christian is a freedom both from legalism and from this immature concept of liberty – it is the freedom that comes from loving what God loves, so that we may do what He wills out of love, not out of a feeling of obligation or compulsion.
This then leads me to what I would like to discuss today, which is the relative importance of the two kinds of love given by Jesus as the heart of God’s will for us. Clearly the two – love of God, and love of neighbour – are deeply interrelated, but which takes priority? It seems to me that, although love of neighbour is the natural and authentic expression of a love of God, and thus a sincere love of God must find its ultimate test in how much we do love our fellow men, that the love of God must come first, or we will end up losing both into the bargain; as Jesus put it himself, we must ‘seek first his kingdom, and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33).
If our priority is a love of neighbour, which will most often be expressed in a concern for their material welfare, then we cannot but help to start making material concerns our priority in general. Whilst a genuine love of God will lead us to want to clothe the poor and feed the hungry, if this is our starting point we will become practical materialists, seeing the things of this world as our ultimate concern. Yet, surely our ultimate concern should be how things stand in the light of heaven; as Saint Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians:
‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.’
This life is brief, and full of many joys as well as many woes, but it is also a stage in which our relationship with God is formed – the extent to which we are oriented towards the things of God, to which we love the Good, is decided here and now. Thus, when life is seen in this light, it must surely be of more importance that we establish a right relationship with the One who made us, and also help others to enter into such a relationship. If however, we (whether explicitly or tacitly) decide that material welfare, or the avoidance of suffering, is more important than what is eternally good and true, then we will inevitably end up neglecting those eternal verities, and become utilitarians – we will end up doing or permitting evil, on the basis that it is ‘for the greater good.’
Again, I must insist that caring for the material welfare of our fellow human beings, and doing everything we can to reduce or even eliminate their suffering, is the duty of every Christian, and will flow naturally from a sincere love of God, because God wants these things to. But if we make them our priority, our love of God and his Truth will not only be secondary in our decision making, it will slowly slip out of our frame of reference altogether – we will become materialists and utilitarians, and therefore indistinguishable from the secular humanism that surrounds us.
These are the short-term consequences of placing love of neighbour above a love of God, but there are consequences further down the line as well. Firstly, as I have already mentioned, we will become no different to our secular humanist counterparts, doing and permitting things that they do and permit, and will lose what it is that makes us distinctively Christian. Secondly, the thing that makes us distinctively Christian – faith in the divine Charity that exists eternally in the Holy Trinity and which we are called to reflect in our lives by being taken up into that life of self-giving love – when it has been removed from the world, will not find anything to take its place.
Whilst it is true that non-believers are perfectly capable of being good people without God in their lives, it also remains true that a.) without God, anything is permissible – there exists no standard by which our actions can then be judged by, and b.) it is an uncomfortable truth that the vast majority of people who give their lives to helping others in difficult circumstances and at great personal cost to themselves, are religious, and the great majority of those people are Christians. It is only the motivation that comes from loving God (and therefore loving what He loves) that can sustain such costly acts of charity, and whilst there are some secular people who also so give themselves, they are greatly in the minority.
Secular ethics as such do not really exist – they rest on principles (such as that we should love our neighbours) inherited from the Christian culture that they repudiate – and it is clear to see that when these principles are divorced from a love of God, the love of neighbour that flows from such an arrangement narrows very quickly to a love for those we know and like, or happen to have a sympathy for. But, as Jesus said, ‘if you love those who love you, what reward have you… And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others?’ (Matthew 5:46-47).
This sort of arrangement therefore must not exist in the mind of a Christian – we are called to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ – this means loving all that He loves and wills. Paramount amongst His desires is of course that we help those less fortunate than us, tend the wounds of the sick, give food and shelter to those who need it. But if we do not love Him above all else, we will find, both individually and corporately, that our love for neighbour will slowly grow cold as well; and how then are we to offer to a benighted world the light it needs?
It is hard to put God first, when our neighbours are much more visible and proximate to us – we feel a natural affection for them that we often do not feel for God. But natural affections are, frankly, not good enough, and if we are to truly make a difference in this world (as well as the next) we must confirm our faith in God, and love Him as our highest good. In doing this, and opening our hearts to Him, we will gradually be transformed, and our natural affections lifted to a higher level, enabling us to do the things that only Love can do. Only if we do this will our lives, that have been ‘hid with Christ in God’, be truly made manifest to the world, and the world come to know the Love that made it.