06 June 2013

Loving Neighbors = Loving God

9th Week OT (Th) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
St. Dominic Church, NOLA 

The scribe who asks Jesus for the first commandment gets a two-fer. He not only recites the first commandment, he teaches its meaning for us mere mortals. To answer the man's question, Jesus quotes the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” This familiar proclamation of God's sovereignty is enforced by the admonition, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” soul, mind, and strength. If the God of Israel is Israel's lord alone—that is, Israel has no other gods—then the hearts, minds, souls, and strength of Israel's people cannot be divided among various and sundry deities. Everything we've got goes into the love and honor we give to God alone. If Jesus had stopped here, no one listening to him would've been all that impressed. He's simply reciting what every child in the nation learned as a matter of course. What Jesus does next is unusual. He recites a verse from nineteenth chapter of Leviticus as a corollary to the first commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What does loving God alone have to do with loving our neighbors? 

Lest we think that Jesus just added that verse from Leviticus as an afterthought, listen again to how he ties the first commandment to the second, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Both commandments are great, no other commandments are greater. I said earlier that adding the quotation from Leviticus in the context of the scribe's question is unusual. The first commandment Jesus quotes is from a lengthy commentary on the 10 Commandments found in Deuteronomy. The second law is a quote from Leviticus, found in a list of various rules for good conduct. Immediately after the rule about loving your neighbor as yourself, Leviticus admonishes against interbreeding different species of animals and against planting fields with different kinds of seeds. Obviously, there's a big difference in the OT btw two laws that Jesus quotes. One is the first commandment of the 10 Commandments, the other is just one of many various rules of conduct. By bringing the two together and dubbing them the Greatest Commandments, Jesus gives practical, real-life force to both. Loving God means loving our neighbors; loving our neighbors is how we show that we love God. There can be no merely abstract or conceptual love for God. If you don't love your neighbors, you do not love God. 

We might not be all that impressed by the originality of this combination—we've heard it before—but the scribe is very impressed by Jesus' teaching. He's so impressed that he praises the Lord, noting that loving God and neighbor is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus sees that the scribe understands the connection btw the two laws and says to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Do we truly understand how loving God and neighbor is worth more than all of our sacrifices, all of our prayers? What is sacrifice and prayer but an expression of our love for and faith in God? We are only able to love b/c God loves us first. When we love one another, we participate in the divine love that God Himself gives us. In effect, we are the rational, flesh and bone means of God loving His creation. A failure to love is more than just a personal flaw, it's a failure to take part in the divine life we have vowed to live. We call it by the innocuous name “lack of charity,” but lacking in charity can cause the death of the soul; it's a mortal sin, a mortal wound to our relationship with God. This is why Jesus calls these two laws the greatest commandments. Violate them and risk an eternity excluded from God; obey them and see yourself ever closer to the Kingdom of God.
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  1. Thunderstorm much in New Orleans tonight??

    I wasn't really taken with this homily. The first paragraph was OK, but the second paragraph just irritated me :-)! The third paragraph piqued my interest, but I wanted more - specifically this:

    "lacking in charity...it's a mortal sin" - I would appreciate, at some point, if you could expand on this. I've heard you say it before, and it always leaves questions in my mind. Knowing the three requirements for a sin to be mortal, at what point does "lacking in charity" move into mortal sin territory? Or, is "lacking in charity" one of those euphemisms which should perhaps be expounded upon with plain and clear/blunt words?

    1. I toil, I scrape, I work my poor fingers bloody on this keyboard! All for the glory of God. . .and I am so little appreciated!


    2. Actually (and seriously). . ."lacking in charity" is the definition of "mortal sin."

    3. Hmmm...not the definition I learned ;-). But I suppose "sin which deprives the soul of sanctifying grace" could be otherwise defined as "lacking in charity." I'll have to give that some thought.

      Oh, I appreciate you just fine . . . you just irritate me sometimes.

      I must admit, I am gravely lacking in charity toward tent caterpillars - I killed 375 of those little vermin today as they were trying to eat my fresh June Strawberries!! And, yes, I counted them. And, yes, I know that bespeaks of something terribly wrong with me!!

    4. "Lacking in charity" is the absence of God from one's heart. . .Deus caritas est.

      What could be more mortal than that?

      375!? Geez. I've killed my share of tomato worms, so can't make any comment on your vermin counting.

    5. I figured out that was probably what you meant . . . I'm just a little slow sometimes :-).

    6. Ah. I'll type slower next time.