A lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:35-39).
We all know the line, but what does it mean?
The two commandments are not parallel. We are not told to love our neighbor with all our heart, and we are not told to love God as our self.
Here is another place where pressing more closely into the words of the Gospel takes us deeper than our vague summaries.
When St. Thomas Aquinas talks about charity, he gives us an interesting thing to think about. When you drink a glass of wine—Thomas was Italian, but you can change the example to pizza or ribs or whatever works best for you—there are two very different kinds of love going on.
You love the wine and you love yourself. But you love yourself in the sense that you want yourself to have a nice thing. You love the wine in the sense that it’s the good thing that you want yourself to have. Both are love, and they are connected, but they are very different.
There are different kinds of friendship. There may be friends that you love like you love pizza. You don’t care what’s good for them, you just like how they make you feel. (And, a subdivision of this, there are friends whom you don’t even enjoy in themselves, you just love them because they give you pizza. Aristotle calls these two friendships “friendship of pleasure” and “friendship of utility—but the point isn’t what Aristotle says, the point is that these are real things.)
There are other people you love not just because of what they can do for you, but for their own sake. To lay down your life for your friends, or even to share your pizza with them, is a sign that you care not just about what you can get from them, but what is good for them. (Aristotle calls this “noble friendship”—we could just call it “real” friendship.)
Friendship is funny, because often there’s a mix. My best friends are pleasant to me. We should enjoy them. But we should also go beyond enjoying them, to wanting what’s good for them. Sometimes you give them a slice of your pizza: less pizza for you to enjoy, but you enjoy that they are enjoying it. You could say they are like “another self,” in that just as you want pizza for yourself, you also want them to enjoy good things.
When Jesus says, “your neighbor as yourself,” we often think he means, boy, I really like myself, and I should like my neighbor that much. “As yourself” would be a measure of quantity.
But “as yourself” is a different kind of loving. (In Greek as in English, it doesn’t say “as much as.”) It doesn’t mean love him more, it means love him in a different way. Love him, not as pizza—not even as really really good pizza—but love him in the sense that you want what is good for him.
Just as you are always working to get what you think will make you happy, long also to make your neighbor happy.
Now we have a connection to the first commandment. When I love God with all my heart, I am loving him as my supreme good, way better than pizza. He is what I want for myself.
But when I love my neighbor as myself, I want him to have that same good. What I think is good for me, I also think is good for him. In fact, wanting my neighbor to have this greatest of goods is a way of underlining that God is the highest good.
It even defines what kind of good God is: God is the kind of good, unlike pizza, that I will have more of if I share. In wanting that good for my neighbor, I discover the kind of good that God is.
Loving my neighbor as myself opens up for me what it means to love God with all my heart.
But St. Thomas says another, startling thing when he talks about charity. He says that, although Christian hope desires God as good for me, Christian love of God is like real friendship. God is not just the pizza I want to consume (though he is that, too)—God is another self, another one of the people for whom I desire the good. I want to make him happy, I want his happiness. That is a crazy claim.
In the Old Testament, which Jesus is here discussing—“On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”—the highest good is to love God for my own sake. But Jesus calls us not servants but friends.
St. Thérèse notices the difference between the Old Testament teaching “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is quite fine, and Jesus’s new commandment, “love as I have loved you,” an interesting reversal of “love as you love yourself.”
Somehow in loving our neighbor “as ourselves,” we discover a new level of love, a love that is not just about seeking my good, but seeing The Good, delighting in God not just because he makes me happy (though he does) but for sheer love. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit!
Whom would you love differently if you were loving them the way you love yourself?