For several Sundays now Jesus has been talking to his subtle enemies. Next week he will be back with the more receptive audience of his disciples. Now, however, a pharisee-lawyer steps forward to test him with a challenge in the arena of words. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Notice the non-committal politeness of the title given to Jesus and the assumption of just one in the phrase “the great commandment”. Unwittingly, the lawyer offers us a useful lesson: to strive for simplicity and essentiality and to prioritize wisely. How many unnecessary complications swamp us in daily life because we don’t do that?
Jesus’s reply might be considered an example of what St Augustine calls “vestiges of the trinity”: the one commandment is in fact three. The first two we know well: love of God and love of neighbour. The third is more subtly expressed and is taken for granted by Jesus: as yourself. Love of self, of course, is an ambiguous concept and could be an expression of egoism. Here, however, it is entirely positive and indeed necessary. It means treating yourself with the reverence and respect that befits all that God has made and loved. Self-hatred, which is quite distinct from the recognition of your own failures and the subsequent contrition, is destructive and blocks the exercise of the first and second parts of the love-trinity. There are two apostolic examples of this contrast: Judas Iscariot (he went and hanged himself, Mt 27:5) allowed self-hatred to destroy him; Peter (he went out and wept bitterly, Mt 26:75), on the other hand, humbly held on to the gift of loving himself in the right way.
Love of God and love of neighbour are, of course, intimately bound together. There is a phrase attributed to Augustine: “by loving me you have made me lovable”. In other words, my lovability, including my self-lovability, depends on God’s loving initiative. Love of God is a longing response drawn from the depths of who we really are. It is in large part “erotic” in the true sense of the word: an energetic need-love that, of course, finds other outlets, good and bad, in human life. Love of neighbour is gift-love, what the New Testament calls “agape”. It mirrors how God loves us.
I apologise for over-simplification, and for what may seem to be abstraction. What can be done in practice? Think of God often and with desire, gratitude and praise in your hearts; treat everyone well and with unconditional benevolence (there are some examples of this in the first reading); value yourselves enough to allow God and others to enter your lives.
By Fr Edmund Power, osb