Jesus tells us in the Gospel that all of the laws and prophets depend on two commandments: “You shall 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 is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Our first debt of gratitude is to God. “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10” We are all sinners. Yes, we are estranged from Paradise because of the sin of our first parents, but we are also strangers to God because of our own sins. God loves us too much to leave us in our sins. He was not obliged to tell us the way out from slavery to sin. But he did even more than this. He loved us too much to leave us to our own devices to see if we might escape. He sent his Son to deliver us by his death and resurrection.
Just as he led Israel through the Red Sea, parting the waves to provide a path to freedom and crushing the pursuing enemy by closing the waters upon them, so too, by the waters of baptism he both parts the waters so that we can pass over to the freedom and grace of the sons of God. Then, he closes the waters upon our sins which pursue us. Much like Israel, we also find ourselves grumbling against the commandments of God and falling back into our previous life, back into our sins. The heavenly Jerusalem is still off in the distance and we wander in the desert of this life. The Israelites had the Ark of the Covenant and the glory of God present in their midst while they journeyed towards Jerusalem. We, too, have the presence of God on our altars and his holy words in our sacred books. For these reasons and more, the case is not that we have loved God and therefore he has loved us back. The contrary is true: God has proved his love for us and therefore we ought to return his love by loving him with all our heart, soul and mind.
But Jesus says the second commandment is like to the first. How can our obligation to love God, which is not merely an external or legal obligation but an interior necessity of the human heart, be compared in any way to an obligation to love our neighbor? First, because if we love God then we must love what he loves. “Beloved, we love God because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 1:19-21)” Second, we who have come to know the love of God have also learned that life not lived in that same love is dreary and leads to no good place. I don’t mean to say that the Catholic life is easy. We certainly struggle in living faithfully the life of virtue. But we have the true words of God to guard to us, to shine the light upon the way so that we can at least see the path that leads to eternal happiness. We have the sacraments to strengthen us, to heal us from every weakness so that it becomes a real possibility to walk that path with the help of grace.
But what does this command to love our neighbor include? Does it mean to simply accept wherever they happen to be? Does it mean to condone the sin in their life? Does it mean that we should put to the side our own Catholic beliefs, or at least not mention them so that we don’t offend anyone? Does it mean that we cannot bring the truth revealed by God into the public sphere? No. G.K. Chesterton remarked about patriotism: “My country, right or wrong,” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.” A patriot loves his country and so hopes that his compatriots and government will live up to the great ideal and all the things that are best about his country. A patriot is embarrassed when his country falls short of those ideals and works tirelessly to remove those things which are not in keeping with the good that he loves. Similarly, true love for neighbor is incompatible with the idea that while our life might be the better for our relationship with God, for our reception of the holy sacraments and our membership in his Mystical Body, the Holy Catholic Church, perhaps our neighbor is incapable of all these good things. Perhaps the life of virtue, and the undoubted struggles and difficulties that will ensue on account of weakness is too much and really won’t bring happiness to others. Nonsense. If we truly believe that, then neither does our Catholic Faith bring us happiness and freedom. It is not love to leave another in the poverty of unbelief, nor the loneliness of being widowed, nor the abandonment of the orphanage. We, all of us, need God. We desperately need the experience of his love and we just as desperately need to love him back.
I’m not suggesting that we run about beating people with revealed truth or shaking our fingers and wagging our heads as we tell them what is wrong with them or their lives. I am suggesting that we meet each person and see their transcendent dignity: they are made in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the blood of the Cross. Let us love them, because God loves them even if they don’t know it yet. He isn’t waiting for them to be perfect before he begins to love them – he already loves them just as they are. He also calls them, just as he calls us, to completion and perfection by sharing in his divine life. He wants them to be free from slavery to sin and live forever in paradise with him. We want that for ourselves, we should want it for others too. But it may take some time just loving them where they are at before they are able to receive God’s love and move to where he is calling them to be. And that should be no surprise to us: isn’t that how we are meeting God, too?