In Matthew 22:36-39, a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”
Jesus said to him, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
Nearly 11 years ago, I returned to the Catholic Church after many years away. I was never bitter or angry; I simply lost my faith. That loss was prompted in no small part by my naïve belief in a charismatic philosophy professor in junior college who proclaimed — mistakenly — that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls had “proven” the non-divinity of Jesus.
It is only in retrospect that I realize my journey home had taken some 10 years, beginning at a time when I wasn’t even aware of it.
It is also in retrospect that I realize that my journey home began with my soul: I became conscious of my gravest sin, followed by remorse.
Then it was my mind. I had to be intellectually convinced that God exists, which took much thinking and reading of philosophy and theology.
The last part of my journey home involved my heart.
By that time, I was attending Sunday Mass, but abstained from receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist. One Sunday, as I watched the congregants line up to receive Holy Communion, the thought “came into” my mind:
“God must really love me to put up with me all these years.”
And with that, the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. Or rather, the last piece of me, which had fallen away from God, was restored.
And I became whole — restored and returned to Him, by His loving mercy and grace.
Since my epiphany that Sunday, I have loved the Lord, my God, with my whole heart, my whole soul, my whole mind, and with all my strength.
But, knowing all the foibles of fallen humanity — foibles of which I amply partake — and the darkness of the human heart, I have not been able to “love my neighbor as myself.” For how can I love all humans with my whole heart, my whole mind, my whole soul . . . ? Knowing my own wretchedness, I don’t even love myself with my whole heart, my whole mind, and my whole soul!
Nor has any priest, in the hundreds of homilies I’ve heard, ever given an adequate definition of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” Who is my “neighbor”? What does “loving” my neighbor means? Most priests I’ve heard, if not all of them, don’t even attempt to define or explain — which is puzzling because the answer is given by, of course, Christ Himself!
From today’s Gospel reading, Luke 10:25-37:
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “Your shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down to Jerusalem from Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
And so, when we are instructed to love our neighbor, in Jesus’ own words, it means we are to treat other human beings “with mercy.” When another has fallen, through no fault of his/her, we are to treat “our neighbor” with kindness and compassion, and provide assistance to the best of our abilities.
That is the true meaning of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” That, I can and will do!
Offered in humility and love,