By Father Christopher Heanue
In this Sunday’s Gospel, a scribe asks Jesus: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” The Law of Moses that regulated the life of ancient Israel contained 613 commandments. The scribe wants to know which of these Christ considers the most important.
The first part of Jesus’ response echoes the words of a prayer that Jews say 3 times each day: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.” Many scholars consider the Shema the most important prayer in all of Judaism. It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” This prayer affirms both the kingship and the oneness of God.
The second part of Jesus’ response addresses our relationship with one another: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, we must always treat one another with respect and with dignity. Our love for neighbor flows from our love for God. In loving our neighbor, we demonstrate that our love for God is real.
The best examples of loving God and neighbor come from the saints. Every week, I have the privilege of celebrating Mass for the Missionaries of Charity, the order of religious sisters founded by Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa’s whole life was dedicated to loving Christ in every person she encountered, especially the poorest of the poor. She manifested to the world the truth that every person is created in the image and likeness of God.
Mother Teresa lived out that truth that the Catechism of the Catholic Church articulates: “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (1700). The same truth is taught in the Baltimore Catechism: “man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.” Every person bears within himself the image of God and therefore has an inviolable dignity.
It is impossible to love God and to hate our neighbor. It is equally impossible to love our neighbor and to hate God. The First Letter of Saint John (4:20) says: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” On the other hand, when we love our neighbor, we love Christ present in him.
When we recognize the dignity and worth of those whom we meet, we treat them differently.
If everyone were to recognize that Christ is present in all people, our whole world would change. Violence would be unthinkable. Our relationships would be purer and more authentic. Our society would promote the common good and the well being of all.
Our individual lives would also be enriched if we were more aware that God has made each of us in His image and likeness. So many people have a deflated sense of self-worth. This holds them back from achieving their fullest potential in life. Teenagers and young adults especially feel unloved and even unlovable. This can lead to depression, negative thoughts, and even self-harm. So many people need to hear and accept that God has created them in love and that He is calling them to love Him in return.
In essence, our faith is a love story. It is a story about the love between us creatures and our Creator. It is a story about the love that all human beings should have for one another. May we always strive to follow the two Greatest Commandments.
Readings for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Father Heanue is the Rector-Pastor of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, Prospect Heights.