Saturday, October 25, 2008

To love God we must love one another


There is a poem by Leigh Hunt about a man called Abu Ben Adhem. Abu Ben woke from his sleep one night and saw an angel in his room writing the names of those who love God in a book of gold. Abu Ben asked the angel, “Is my name on your list?” The angel replied, “No, not you.” Abu Ben then asked the angel, “I pray then, at least list me as someone who loves his neighbor.” The following night the angel came again and displayed the names of those who love God and Abu Ben’s name was on top of the list.

This poem makes the point that true love of God and true love of neighbor are like two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist apart from the other. Abu Ben loved his neighbor, which was the proof that he also loved God. We find this same message in today's Gospel. Much like last week’s question about whether it was lawful to pay the tax to Ceasar, the Pharisees are again trying to trap Jesus by asking Him a loaded question: “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” The textbook answer, of course is love of God. But, again like last week, Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to give an answer that exceeds their expectations and challenges them to a greater holiness of life. He gives the other side of the coin, which, of course, is love of neighbor. Jesus is making the point that anyone who truly loves God will necessarily love their neighbor; these are virtually one in the same thing. You cannot truly love your God unless that loves shows forth in love of neighbor. As Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Jesus is reacting against the Pharisees one-dimensional understanding of love. For Jesus, true love must express itself in three dimensions: the love of God; the love of neighbor; and the love of oneself. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself presumes that you first love yourself as a beautiful person created in the image and likeness of your God.

Last week, Jesus wasn’t so concerned with what was due to Ceasar, instead He was more concerned with what was due to God, something the people were forgetting. In the same way, the emphasis on today’s question about the greatest commandment is not on the obvious love of God but on the love of neighbor, which, again, was being ignored.

Just look at the treatment that Jesus received. He and His followers were persecuted by well-meaning religious people motivated by what they believed to be zeal and love for God. The same people asking about the most important commandment are the ones trying to trap and eventually kill Jesus. They are so conscious about love of God. Why then are they so insensitive when it comes to love of neighbor?

This is, of course, a concern that reaches our ears and our world today. The error of the Pharisees is still with us. We don’t have to look further than the ever growing divide between rich and poor, the continuing problem of homelessness, the continuing scourge of prejudice, the violence, death and destruction that are so much a part of our world to wonder where is our love of neighbor? There are many Christians who try to separate the love of fellow human beings from their love of God. Their commitment to faith does not include commitment to issues of human rights; to economic and legal justice; to the call for peace; to equality and the ending of prejudice and persecution. We do well to heed Jesus in today's Gospel: true love of God and true love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. Any attempt to separate them is a distortion of the message of Christ.

We hear in the First Letter of John, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Or from St. James, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? Indeed someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works…For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Let us pray today that God will shake loose from us any indifference we may feel towards our brothers and sisters – especially those in need. We ask God to give us the same love and compassion towards our neighbors as Jesus had. We pray, not only for the knowledge of how to love, but the wisdom to want to love in all circumstances.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

May God give you peace.

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