In Matthew 22:36-39 Jesus tells us love is the highest duty of humankind. Love is human activity at its finest. Here’s the text:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
The command is the same in both cases: to love; but the recipients are different: “God” and “neighbor” (see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; and likely Luke 10:29-37 where “neighbor” extends to anyone in need). Since God is the greater of the two recipients (greater in every way morally, metaphysically, and conceptually), then it follows that he must receive more of our love. In fact, God must receive all of our love. Neighbors, however, are to receive at least as much as our own self love. How else can we make sense of the “Golden Rule” (see Matthew 7:12)?
Let’s turn the text around. Jesus does not say “Love God as your love yourself,” or “love your neighbor with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” To love God only as much as we love ourselves falls short, not because we cannot love ourselves entirely and with complete abandon, but because the magnitude of our human love is seen partly in the level of beauty of the recipient. Precisely how “lovely” would it be, for instance, to love a fellow criminal when I myself am a thief? God, as the most beautiful being, reserves the right to be loved by all that is in us (understanding “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” not to be mutually exclusive faculties but inclusive, over-lapping categories denoting the whole self). Other humans get at least the amount of love that we have for ourselves. Nevertheless, our human love is merely human when not grounded in God’s love for us.
There is a logical order to these loves, or a relationship of entailment between the greatest command to love God first and the second command to love neighbor. Unless and until the first and the greatest love is carried out, the second love is simply not as great as it could be (see 1 John 4:20). If we succeed in love for God, we succeed in love for neighbor. “We love [others] because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). If we fail in love for neighbor, it is because we have failed loving God. Therefore, love for God entails love for others. When we succeed in loving others, we not only show that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (see Romans 13:8), but we have shown that our love for God is preeminent.
- When I fail to love others, it is my love for God that has failed.
- When I show love for others, it is either motivated by and rooted in love for God or love for self. If the latter, then my love for others falls short of the full expression of love that could be conveyed. When motivated by love for God, my human love becomes a divine love, which is greater.
- My love for others is meaningful only when motivated by my love for God.