Love Thy Neighbour

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.


7 thoughts on “Love Thy Neighbour

  1. Oh this is just magnificent! It is one of the best analysis of the true meaning of loving God and neighbour that I have ever read – I really mean it!
    I should like to print it out and flap it in the faces of all the well-meaning (but misguided) Christians who put the solely material needs of “the poor” before their spiritual needs. 😉

    My favourite charity is “Aid to the Church in Need”, who though not forgetting the necessity of helping with the basic material needs of Catholics (and other Christians) in third world countries, aims mainly to help their vitally more important spiritual needs. They do such wonderful good and holy work.

    Just as an aside – I remember hearing a story in the Russian Orthodox Church just after their release from Communism in 1989 or 1990, when an attempt was made to sell off some of the riches of their ornately decked churches to help the desperately poor population (as the Russians were at that time). The people were all horrified at such an idea and vehemently opposed these actions!! These humble Christians, many greatly lacking in material needs themselves, had a clear idea of how to give love and glory to God first, finding comfort and solace in prayer in their beautiful churches, fitting temples for the Most Sacred.

  2. Another thing that i remember was Pope St. John Paul II’s brush with the marxist ideology of Liberation Theology in Latin America.
    He reminded the Jesuits (who had really fallen for this) that they PRIESTS, not politicians: “Religious do not follow the ways of men of this world, and that their boundaries are supernatural, rather than the temptations of power, riches and politics.” He also said in no uncertain terms that he would no longer tolerate any Jesuit who rejected the traditions set by the Society over four hundred years ago. “Your proper activity is not in the temporal realm, nor in that one which is the field of laymen and which must be left to them.”
    Finally, he reminded them that St. Ignatius was first and foremost obedient to the Throne of Peter!

    When it boils down to it though, it is natural that if one truly loves one’s neighbour as oneself, you will tend to all their needs – just as you say in your article – but it is a mistaken concept that material well-being takes precedence over the spiritual. You can be poor and yet joyful by being rich in God’s love; but without God in your life there is no true joy.

    • Thank you Kathleen for these very gracious and heartfelt comments 🙂

      I absolutely agree about the Liberation Theology movement – to my mind it is/was one of the most dangerous movements within the Church over the last century or so, precisely because it sought to reduce the Gospel to materialist ends (and by doing so, ended up excising a great deal of both the Old and New Testaments).

      When we prioritise the material over the spiritual, we turn the Church into ‘just another NGO’ (to paraphrase Pope Francis), and ultimately do not supply people with what they need to fulfil the whole person. If however we put God first, we will naturally tend to our neighbour’s needs, and seek to draw them into a relationship with God that will help them to quench the thirst we all have for things beyond the material – we get both into the bargain. Whereas with the other option, we eventually lose both.

      Thank you also for sharing that story about the Orthodox in Russia post-communism (and for bringing that charity to my attention) – it is wonderful. What those who seek to divest the Church of her vestments and altars, etc always forget is that these things mean a great deal to the poor – I have been on a fair few cathedral tours in my time, and it is always the case that a great deal of contribution towards the building of the cathedrals was from the local community, especially the poor – because they loved God and wanted to glorify Him, as well as having somewhere beautiful in their midst so they could feel closer to heaven.

      If all the churches in the world were stripped of their riches, all that would happen is that the money raised with the sales would be either siphoned off by someone else, or even if used for good, it would just be a one-off, drop in the ocean, and would do nothing to help the poor in the long term. At the same time, parishes across the world would have the one sacred and beautiful place in their neighbourhood taken away from them – it benefits hardly anyone except the Marxists that want to find any stick to beat the Church with.

      P.S. Good call re Saint Ignatius’ vow to obedience to the Pope. There are a lot of Jesuits out there at the moment who need to be reminded of this!

  3. Pingback: Being ‘Spiritual’ | Journey Towards Easter

  4. Thanks Michael for your (as usual) very perceptive comments. You certainly hit the nail on the head.

    I expect you saw the few negative comments on the article on our blog about the Bishop of Shrewsbury, where they were complaining and accusing the use of beautiful vestments, chalices etc., as if such things were wasteful, fussy and unnecessary. Giving the best of ourselves and our “first fruits” for the greater love and adoration of God is completely lost on them – sad!

    Loving and putting God first in one’s life, means everything else (loving one’s neighbour as oneself) will automatically follow – just as you have so succinctly laid out in your article.

    • Hi Kathleen,

      Yes I did see some of those comments on the article about Bishop Mark Davies. Not only, as you say, did they not seem to understand the role of vestments, etc in expressing our love of God and putting Him first, but also they were doing a great disservice to a very good and humble man (Bishop Davies himself). From what I read though, I don’t think those commenters actually knew much about him or the Church!

      Thank you again for your very kind comments by the way 🙂

  5. Pingback: Unlovable? | Journey Towards Easter

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