The words that you heard Our Lord Jesus speak to the Pharisees in the Gospel (Mt 22.34-46) are both subtle and profound. They are subtle because they contain not simply the answer that He wishes to give to them, but also a little bit more that they need to hear. And they are profound because they draw us out of ourselves and deeper into the mystery of the love that God is.
Let’s first consider their subtlety. The Pharisees wish to trap Jesus and so they send someone who knows the law, someone who knows the answer to the question he is going to ask. So this is not a curious question. This is not someone saying, “Gee, Jesus, what do you think of this one?” Rather it is a very tricky, craftily devised question to see how Jesus will answer.
What is the first commandment? You all know the answer. You know that the first commandment is that you shall have no other gods. But that is not how Jesus chooses to answer the question, even though that’s what the Pharisees and especially that expert in the Torah expects to hear.
Jesus simply wishes to focus on something that they have forgotten, something that too often is misunderstood by us, something that escapes us because it lives in our emotions rather than living in who we are. And so the first word out of His mouth is “love.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Love God above all else. If you love something else more than God, then you do not yet love God. And to love God is to love God above everything else, to fear nothing but losing God, and to trust in God more than you trust anyone, or anything else.
Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. That’s the first commandment.
The key word is “love.” A word that has escaped these men, for they were not interested in loving Jesus. They were envious of him. They wanted to trap him and trick him. They wanted to see how they could get him. And anytime you want to trip someone up, anytime you want to get at them, anytime you want to stab them with some word, you do not love.
This is why Jesus then continues with more than what they asked for. For they asked for the first commandment and he told them, “This is the first and greatest of all commandments. But the second commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Notice the order. “To love God is to love our neighbor” (St John Chrysostom). It does not say that to love our neighbor is to love God. For if we put the neighbor first, then we can determine who our neighbor is and how we are going to treat them. And too often our neighbors are people we like, not the people that we think are smelly or dissatisfying to us. And too often the neighbor is the one that we think we can manipulate and bully or use.
Now if we put the neighbor first and say “to love the neighbor is to love God,” then we might be thinking we can get away with something with God. That we can manipulate God and bully Him; that we can say to Him, “See what I have done for you; now here is something you can do for me.”
That is often times how our prayers tend to go, even if we don’t say those exact words. For our prayers tend to be, “God I did my part, now you be fair and do your part. Do the help that I say I need from you because I did the thing that You said I should do.”
To put God first; to love God by loving your neighbor—that means that we must love our neighbor in the same way that we love God: with all that we are and with all that we have.
To love our neighbor then is not to try and manipulate him, or to use him, or to bully him, or to see what we can get from him, or to bargain with him. To love our neighbor is to realize that any person put in front of us —not just the ones we like, not just the ones that are agreeable to us, but anyone in front of us—that is the person we are to love. And we are to love with the same love that we have for God: without any fear of losing or being short changed ourselves, without any trust in what we do, without any love for ourselves. That is how we are to love our neighbor because that is how we are to love God.
This escaped the Pharisees. It too often escapes us as well. But it escaped them because, as I said, they were envious, they were jealous, they were trying to trap him, they were trying to use his words against him. Rather than hearing what he was saying, they wanted to just listen to the words. Jesus of course understands this and chooses his words better than we do. He’s very precise in his language and hits the bottom note just exactly where it needs to be: on the word love.
Now, when Jesus proceeds further He becomes profound. He draws us out of our self, and into the mystery who God is. For our Lord says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Too often we hear that backwards too. Too often we think that in order to love my neighbor I must first love myself. And since I don’t yet love myself how can I love my neighbor? And so my neighbor will get no love whatsoever until I’ve learned to love, and forgive, and be at peace with myself.
That’s not what Jesus says. He says love your neighbor as yourself. Not love yourself and then love your neighbor. That is too often how we operate. Our Lord is urging to do is to think about how we are to love ourselves.
We all know that within us lurks some sort of darkness—some darkness of the soul, some darkness of the mind. We all know that within us lurks some sort of fear and anxiety so that we are unsettled with who we truly are. No doubt, this is why we are constantly trying to shift or shape our identity and say to ourselves: “Maybe I fit here, maybe I fit there, maybe I should do this instead. I’m unhappy with all sorts of things in life: work, friends, family: all these things that annoy me.”
How is it then with all this darkness lurking within us, when we’re not very sure about who we are, with all this unhappiness—even during the times when we’re peaceful and at rest—how is it then that we can even begin to love ourselves?
We love ourselves when we listen not to what our voice says, not to what we think about ourselves, but instead hear the identity that God has given to us: the statement of love He has spoken to us. For He spoke in the waters of baptism the same word to you that He said to his beloved Son: “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”
Now we have a choice. Do we believe what God says about us, that He loves us even though He knows our darkness? Even though He knows our flaws? Even though He knows we are constantly veering off in the wrong direction and are making promises that we cannot keep, or will not keep? Even though he knows all of that, He still loves us.
Do we believe what God clearly says to us? Or do we believe the darkness within us; what today’s prayer [collect] calls the contagion of the devil. The contagion of the devil, among other things, wants us to believe that we really are unlovable people because we cannot really love ourselves.
But God’s word is very clear and precise to us: “You are my beloved son; You are my beloved daughter.”
Now when that sinks in, when we can begin to believe that, and trust that, and live from that, and push aside the darkness and bad feelings that are still there—when we say to them, “Nevertheless, God loves me”—when we’re able to do that, then we can begin to love our neighbor. Not because we’ve fallen in love with ourselves, but because we’ve learned to see our neighbor as the same sort of person that we are: the one to whom God says “This is my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.”
That is the profoundness of the words that Jesus speaks when He says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He’s not saying, “First love yourself, and then love your neighbor.” He’s instead saying, “Love your neighbor with the same sort of love that God has declared to you; because that is the only love that you can be sure is true for you; that is the only love that really applies to you. And so love your neighbor as another human that has been loved by God.”
That is hard for us to do because we want to push people away; we want to make sure that we somehow manipulate them or use them.
But if we love them as God has loved us, and if we love God with everything that we are and everything that we have, then we have not simply fulfilled the first and the second commandments. Rather, we’ve been filled with the God whose love is within us. And we’ve not just kept the rules. We have kept the love of God that he gives to us, and that he is for us, and that he is within us.
To this Lord Jesus Christ, the Father’s beloved Son who lives His love in us, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen
Homily on St. Matthew 22.34-46 by Fr John Fenton for Pentecost XVII (13 October 2019)