There is an immortal poem written by Englishman Leigh Hunt about a man called Abou Ben Adhem. Abou Ben Adhem woke from his sleep one night and saw in his room an angel writing in a book of gold the names of those who love God. “And is mine one?” inquired Abou. “Nay, not so,” replied the angel. “I pray thee, then, said Abou, “Write me as one who loves his fellow men and women.” The following night the angel came again and displayed the names of those who love God and Abou Ben Adhem’s name was on top of the list. This poem makes the point that true love of God and true love of our fellow human beings are like two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist apart from the other. That is what we find in today's gospel in which Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment in the law. Though he is asked for the greatest commandment only, in his response Jesus gives what may at first glance seem like two but which are in reality one. True love of God and true love of neighbour is practically one and the same thing.
Jesus is here reacting against a one-dimensional understanding of love. For Jesus, true love must express itself in the vertical and horizontal dimensions. The vertical dimension refers to the love which a person has for God and the horizontal dimension to that love for God which must be expressed in love for the other. He even goes so far as to say this is the summation of the law and prophets namely the summation of all that has ever been said by anyone. Thus, the first entails the second; the second presupposes and depends on the first. In neither case, however, is love construed as an emotion. Love for one’s neighbor means acting toward others with their good, their well-being, their fulfillment, as the primary motivation and goal of our deeds. Such love is constant and takes no regard of the perceived merit or worth of the other person. Love of God, on the other hand, is to be understood as a matter of reverence, commitment, and obedience. It is at once an acknowledgment of God’s identity as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer and a reflection of that reality in the ordering of our lives. With this orientation toward God and others, the law and the prophets have reached their ultimate goal.
The first reading from Exodus provides some help in understanding why these two commands are interrelated. Whenever someone is wronged, hurt or forgotten, God is there and he hears their cry. Whenever one fails to regard the needs of the neighbor, he or she has broken trust with the God of compassion. After all, the Exodus text reminds the hearers of their own position as strangers and foreigners. The same God who took compassion on them when they were in exile now looks to see his own spirit of compassion living on in them. The God of love first and foremost draws all people into a loving relationship with himself.
God’s love is also evident in Paul’s earliest record of his ministry. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul acknowledges that it takes courage to declare the Gospel in the face of opposition. This Gospel is about Jesus the tangible expression of God’s unconditional love. His sole intention in coming to earth was to save people from their sins by manifesting to them the reality of the unconditional love of God. This love experienced by them was a love that became visible in their actions towards their neighbours. The reason for the opposition is because people prefer to lead selfish and self centered lives rather than have the courage as Jesus has shown to live other centered lives. Those with advantage tend to regard the existing order as appropriate.
We live in a world that is quickly being destroyed by consumerism and greed. It is a world in which to “have more” is more important than to “be more” and even if this having more, is at the cost of giving less and sometimes nothing to others. It is a world in which we turn our heads as the rainforests burn and glaciers melt only because we want to live in bigger houses and drive bigger cars that consume more oil and gas than can be produced. It is a world that answers the “wants” of a few by destroying more and more of God’s creation. It is a world in which those with enough and more clothes for themselves dare to take away their neighbour’s only cloak and leave him or her naked.
Thus being loving and compassionate involves more than mere kindness. It is the passion to develop strategies and structure to lift up those who are down. If our political and economic systems allow the marginalized to fall between society's cracks, then we who have been loved into action by a compassionate God are encouraged to challenge the existing order or to find ways to alter their predicament. To fail to do this is to lose God in the chaos of society.
Such decisions are ours to make daily, and some are even more profound. As Christians, we are called to ask what Jesus means to us, what our compassionate God has done for us in Christ. And then we are challenged to claim this Jesus as our Messiah, in word and deed, as we seek to make present constantly his love in our world. It is thus only when we show this love for neighbour in so tangible a manner that we can profess to love God.