As Christians, we are called to love God. We are also called to love our neighbor. But the love of God and the love of neighbor are not merely two different things we are asked to do. They are actually two aspects of the same thing: love, the greatest commandment God asks of human beings. Loving God requires loving people. In loving people, we are loving God.
Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, answered not with one commandment, but with two:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” [Matthew 22:36-40]
But why? He was asked only for one commandment. But he gave two instead. It is because they are deeply and intimately connected: they are in a sense different facets of the same thing. In the Bible, St. John the Evangelist writes, “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. ” [1 John 4:20] The reason is striking: what we do to others, we do to God himself. In the Gospels, Jesus illustrates with a powerful story:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. [Matthew 25:31-46]
This is stunning. When we love others, we love God. When we fail to love others, we fail to love God. This is because God loves people so very much: if we fail to love them like he does, we are failing to love him. God’s love is like that. When you love people God’s way, you love not just them, but also the ones they love. God’s love is transitive, connected, even contagious.
As I write this, a worldwide pandemic is raging. My family and I are practicing social distancing, working and studying from home. We, and many others doing the same, are isolating ourselves as much as possible from other people in order to hinder the spread of the Covid19 virus, a virulent and sometimes fatal lung disease that spreads all too easily. But social distancing is difficult and unpleasant. Churches have been closed worldwide, and public health organizations have ordered all sorts of restrictions on gatherings, to hinder the transmission of the disease. It is not primarily to protect ourselves that we are maintaining social isolation: most people who get Covid19 do recover. Our main goal is to protect others, especially the weak and vulnerable. In protecting others from the spread of this disease, we are doing what is good and right for them. Yes, social isolation is hard. Even our life of faith has been affected: we are not attending mass (churches are closed) and we are missing the sacraments. Mass via video is not the same. But it is not for lack of love of God that we are missing mass, it is because of it. We are socially isolating to protect people. We do it for love of people, a love that is deeply and intimately connected to love of God. In loving them, we love God, who loves them even more than we do. Let us keep loving, even if the situation is difficult, because love is, now and ever, the greatest commandment.