Learning to Love God, Our Neighbour and Ourselves
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is one.
In the Gospel today from St Matthew, at the end of Chapter 22, Christ urges the questioning expert in the Mosaic law (just as he urges us) to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” as well as to “love your neighbour as yourself.” That is quite difficult. We would all like to love God and our neighbour much more than we do in practice; and yet, and yet, we also genuinely wish to look after ourselves and our families, to balance our love of God and of our neighbours with meeting our own needs, in this world, in the present moment.
Now, in the Gospels of St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke, each of these divinely inspired writers mention the importance of loving God and loving your neighbour. Yet all of the evangelists, like the lawyer (and me, and perhaps many of you) struggle at times with how this message to love fits into the sequence of our lives. St Matthew does not tell us what was the response of this man who knew the Mosaic Law so well. St Luke, in Chapter 10, has the lawyer himself stress the importance of loving God and your neighbour; and Christ praises him with the words, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” St Mark, in Chapter 12, has a scribe ask the same key question, receive the same response from Christ; and then the scribe praises Christ with the words, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as [oneself], is much more [important] than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. And once again, Christ praises the person who has questioned Him so fully, by telling the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
All three of these different accounts of the questioning of Christ by Jews who know the Mosaic Law well end with the same response from all of the people listening to Christ: “No one dared from that day on to ask [Christ] another question.” So even if the evangelists give different accounts of how the question was asked and who asked it, every evangelist agrees that once Christ has told the Jews of the first century (and us) to love God and our neighbour, no further questions are possible. Why? Why is this advice from Christ so important that no further questions are possible?
First, we need to understand that Christ has brought together two important passages from the Old Testament. Chapter 6, Verse 5, in the book of Deuteronomy reads: “You shall love the Lord your God with the whole of your mind and with the whole of your soul and with the whole of your power.” Chapter 19, Verse 18, in the book of Leviticus ends with the words: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself; it is I who am the Lord.” Both of these passages affirm the central message of Judaism, both ancient and modern, as given in Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, Verse 4: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord.” Those words are known as the “Shema” the Hebrew word for “hear,” because God the Father is urging the Israelites to hear Him; and to listen so intently that they gain the ability to teach others how to hear God.
That same Chapter 6 in Deuteronomy continues: “You shall love the Lord your God with the whole of your mind and with the whole of your soul and with the whole of your power. And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart and in your soul. And you shall teach them to your sons [and today, in our culture, we would certainly add, “and to your daughters”] and talk on them while sitting at home and going on the road and lying down and rising up.” This translation from the Septuagint, the approved Orthodox translation of the Old Testament, makes clear that learning to love God is not something delivered to us ready made from heaven, but rather an experience here on earth in which we talk to our friends and to our children and slowly learn what it means to love, whether in this culture today, or thousands of years before Christ, or at the time when Christ was teaching the Israelites. In all of these cultures, the message is the same: Learn to love; reflect on how to love God and your neighbour better; consider the options: how can we and our children learn to love better?
Christ gives us an important step in learning how to love when He reminds his fellow Jews in the first century that just as thousands of years before, they still need to love their neighbours as themselves. That same message is relevant to us as Christians; and indeed, to all people in all ages. We must first learn to love and accept ourselves, with all our weaknesses and deficiencies; and then, and only then, can we learn to love others. There is no conflict between looking after yourself and looking after your neighbour. On the contrary, it is precisely because we have learned to look after ourselves that we then gain the insights essential to look after others.
Now there is a balance. It is right to consider both our own needs and the needs of others. It is right, at certain times in our lives, to focus on how we can grow stronger in our own ability to experience and receive love, and at other times in our lives to focus on how we can best love and serve others. C. S. Lewis suggests in his little book, The Four Loves, that love itself has the ability “to obliterate the distinction between giving and receiving”—that is, to create a life in which one no longer knows whether one is giving or receiving, because the person is simply seeking to love another person and to be loved. C. S. Lewis begins his book by making a distinction between what he calls “Gift-love” and “Need-love”. We would all hope to give a gift of love to others, but “Need-love” is equally important and is not “mere selfishness,” because “we do in reality need one another.” Furthermore, Lewis suggests—and as an Orthodox Christian, I think he’s right—that the love of each human being for God—and I quote—“must always be very largely, and must often be entirely, a Need-love”—end of quote. It seems to me that just as we must learn to accept and love ourselves deeply before we can love others deeply, so we each have to learn to accept the depth of God’s love for us, before we can then return that love to God. As Christians, we know it is God in Christ who first loved each of us and teaches each of us how to love others.
The early Church Fathers understood well this vision of love in both the Old and New Testaments. St Ambrose, the fourth century bishop, preacher and teacher was very clear indeed in the advice he offered to his parishioners and to us: “The law says, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. It did not say ‘speak’,” said St Ambrose, “but ‘hear’. . . The first word . . . God says to you [is] ‘hear’.” I find that hard to implement; it is often easier to speak than to take the time to listen and to hear.
St John Chrysostom, the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople is sometimes wrongly accused of anti-Semitism—of hating the Jews—simply because he was determined to defend the Church of Christ against those who were returning to their Jewish beliefs and leaving the Church. St John Chrysostom pointed out in his Homilies on the Gospel of St Matthew that before Christ lived on earth, Jews, and I quote, “might then be saved even though they had not confessed Christ. For this was not required of them.” What was required was “not to worship idols and to know the true God. ‘For the lord your God,’ it is said, ‘is one Lord’.” Thus those Jews who lived a “very virtuous life” and “maintained the standard of . . . their knowledge had nothing more required of them. For them,” concluded St John Chrysostom, “it was sufficient for salvation, as I have already said, to know God only, but now, it is so no more. There is need also of the knowledge of Christ.”
Linked to this knowledge of Christ that we as Orthodox Christians can share with others is the beauty of having a relationship to the Holy Spirit. St Augustine expressed the power of this relationship to the Holy Spirit when he wrote that for us “law is not written on tables of stone but is shed … in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us.” St Augustine certainly challenges us when he wrote in The Spirit and the Letter that: “No one loves [their] neighbour unless [they] love God, and by loving [their neighbour] as [themself], to the limit of [their] ability, [they] pour our [God’s] love on [their neighbour] so that [they] too may love God.” That is a quite a challenge—to first love God; and then take that love, that gift of the Holy Spirit, into ourselves and into others.
I would like to conclude with the words of a celebrated sixth-century preacher, St Caesarius of Arles, who was reflecting on Romans, Chapter 13, Verse 8, which reads: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” St Caesarius preached: “Therefore, whatever you do, do it for the love of Christ, and let the intention or end of your actions look to Him. Do nothing for the sake of human praise but everything for the love of God and the desire for eternal life. Then you will see the end of all perfection, and when you have reached it you will want nothing more.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise
to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn