This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law, tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “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. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
If you lived in 1986 and were at least five years old, the one song you can probably sing by heart from that era is “Greatest Love of All.” That turned into a monster hit from Whitney Houston, but it had actually hit the charts nine years before with George Benson, peaking at #24 on Billboard. The song was written for a biopic of Muhammed Ai called The Greatest in 1977 which didn’t exactly turn into a classic, and the song ended up a modest success.
By the time Houston turned it into a monster #1 and her first breakout hit, the context of Ali’s biography to the lyrics had been lost. Instead, it stood on its own as a testimony to self-esteem and self-love as the highest aspiration, which the song urges people to instill in children. “The greatest love of all is easy to achieve,” it instructs. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
If that’s true, then humanity has succeeded to its full capacity.
It’s true that in our Gospel reading today, and in several other places in both the Old and New Testaments, the Lord has instructed us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” That does require us to have an appreciation for who and what we are as individuals, and how our gifts contribute to the whole. However, the scriptures also make plain that the problem with humanity has not been a deficit of self-love, but a surfeit of it — from the very beginning.
Consider the lesson of Adam and Eve in Genesis, who lived in harmony with the Lord and with Creation. At first they understood their place in this harmony, living as luminous creatures within the spiritual and physical universe God had created. But then they grew jealous of the Lord and sought equality with Him after being tempted by the serpent. They thought of themselves as gods, the Lord’s rivals, and ate from the forbidden tree. They didn’t do that from a lack of self-esteem. And once discovered, they immediately blamed each other for the transgression, a rather craven act of self-love rather than the caritas with which the Lord had blessed them.
Inordinate self-love is the root of original sin, of rebellion against God, and the author of most misery in the world. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah come after the people adopt every evil and greedy impulse, sating their own desires rather than living within the harmony of God’s law. The Israelites escape Egypt to form a nation of priests to bring the Lord’s salvation to all the other nations, only to fall back into idolatry before they even set foot on the journey to the Promised Land. Later, their kingdoms would trade worldly power and momentary wealth for the Lord’s covenant, and find themselves destroyed and exiled.
The scriptures are filled with warnings against inordinate self-love, and urging toward love of others as the greater good. Our first reading today comes from Exodus 22, in the middle of a series of laws given to Moses on his first sojourn on Mt. Sinai after fleeing Egypt. Not anywhere within these laws are any that suggest that the Israelites (or anyone else) require a dictate to love themselves sufficiently. Instead, the laws mainly restrict the people from focusing on their own desires over those of the community, to allow for a just and fair existence within the new nation.
In fact, the Lord expressly states how people are to treat others, including those who are not of their nation:
“You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”
This teaching appears again and again throughout the Old Testament — loving one’s neighbor, providing for the unfortunate, and looking outward rather than inward. Thus by the time of Jesus’ meeting with the Pharisees, the lesson should have been obvious, and the question hardly worth asking: which commandment in the law is the greatest? Matthew characterizes this as a test, the end of a series of tests posed by the Pharisees and Sadducees, one last attempt to trap Jesus into a heresy or at least an unresolvable theological argument.
Instead, Jesus distills all the laws into two themes, unassailable in its logic and purpose, and both firmly opposed to the idea that self-love trumps all else. Both speak of the original state of humanity at its moment of creation. We are called to love God as He loves us — totally, unconditionally, unreservedly — and to love each other in the same manner as members of His family. Jesus calls us to return to that caritas of the Lord so that we may prepare ourselves to live within the Trinitarian life at the end of this world and the beginning of the new Jerusalem.
This was the failure of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the failure of all the human societies that followed, including that of God’s own people. Rather than love God and each other on those terms, we too often choose self-love and all the ills that come with it — gluttony, lust, avarice, and so on. When that happens, we grasp at idols of our own making as diversions rather than trusting in the Lord who made us.
When we choose to serve the Lord, as Paul writes to the Thessalonians in our second reading, it unlocks us from the bonds of inordinate self-love and puts us in touch with the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. When we truly put that into practice, it offers such a compelling example that it leads others to the Lord, fulfilling our mission of loving our neighbors through conversion. Paul tells the Thessalonians that their decision to abandon idolatry “to serve the living and true God and to await His Son from heaven” has set a fire in the hearts of their brethren in Macedonia and Achaia. It becomes a testament to the caritas of the Holy Spirit and of the Trinitarian life.
Self-love is indeed “easy to achieve.” Loving the Lord and each other is much tougher. However, that self-sacrificing love emulates and forms us in the Lord’s love for us, which is truly the greatest love of all — and the love we hope to share in eternity.
The front page image is “Christ in the house of the Pharisee,” Jacopo Tintoretto, 16th century.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.