Fr. Lo Dam, MM, reflects on the two commandments to love God and neighbor.
The Gospel passage today marks the third attempt of Jesus' opponents to try and get him in trouble.
In the first attempt, the Pharisees try to entrap Jesus with the question of whether it is right to pay taxes or not; then the Sadducees challenge him about the resurrection from the viewpoint of Jewish marriage law. Finally, in today’s Gospel, the Pharisees come back to the scene with a scholar of the Jewish law to ask Jesus what the greatest commandment is. It seems to me that having failed to find fault with Jesus' thinking on the socio-political front, they decided to take him on theologically to see whether he truly knows the law or the doctrine. In other words, they wanted to test Jesus’ orthodoxy!
The question they pose is not tricky, so Jesus' answer is also straightforward. Indeed, his answer is not original in itself. The idea that those two commandments about 'loving God' and 'loving neighbor' summarize the whole of the law already existed in Jewish thought before Jesus.
However, what Jesus says here is new in this point: the Jewish scholars may have thought those are TWO pre-eminent commandments, but they still did not see them as equal. The Pharisee asks Jesus, "Which commandment is the greatest?" Clearly they expected him to pick one, not two. Jesus does cite the first one, "Loving God with all your heart, your soul, your mind," but by mentioning the 'Loving neighbor' in the same breath, with the work "likewise," he raises it to a kind of equal footing.
The apostle John later would say in his first epistle, "If a man says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar; for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how he can love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). As Henry Hamann, a biblical scholar, put it, "Jesus does not separate love for God from love for man, since the latter flows from the former, and since without the latter the former is impossible.” Bishop Robert Barron sees here the christological depth of the link between the two like this, "Why are the two commandments so tightly linked? The best response is the simplest: because of who Jesus is. Christ is not simply a human being, and he is not simply God; rather, he is the God-man, the one in whose person divinity and humanity meet. Therefore, it is finally impossible to love him as God without loving the humanity that he has, in his own person, embraced."
Perhaps another connotation is that, as putting 'loving God' first is orthodoxy, 'Loving neighbor' inevitably draws us into orthopraxy, or the right practice of faith, so to speak. A person can claim to love God but we can't know for sure how true her statement is; but 'loving neighbor' has to be shown in one's attitude and action, so no one can hide for long. Dorothy Day has memorably said, "I only love God as much as the person I love the least!" To love our fellow human beings, as well as love God, requires utmost honesty!
Also, the word 'neighbor' is very significant. G.K. Chesterton has wisely remarked, "Everybody loves humankind, the people next door is whom he can't stand!" and, "The Scripture teaches us to love our enemies and to love our neighbors, because many times they are the same people!" For love to be real, it can't stay in the abstract, but has to immerse in life concretely, with people of flesh and blood next to us.