Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The greatest commandment, Jesus tells us, is: “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.”

Well, of course. But a commandment ? I tend to empathize with the Danish Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who writes, in Works of Love ,

‘You shall love . . . ’ is the very mark of Christian love and is its distinctive characteristic“that it contains this apparent contradiction: to love is a duty . . . . Is it not remarkable that in the whole New Testament there is not a single word about erotic love in the sense in which the poet celebrates it and paganism idolized it? Is it not remarkable that in the whole New Testament there is not a single verse about friendship in the sense in which the poet celebrates it and paganism cultivated it?

But how can love ever be commanded? How can it be a duty? If it is a duty, doesn’t this detract from its worth? Isn’t love something that happens spontaneously when we are confronted with something or someone that is immensely good and attractive? It almost seems that the commandment to love is a command to do the impossible. Sigmund Freud, in his Civilization and Its Discontents, categorizes it as an unhealthy psychological ideal that can become embedded in a culture:

‘The commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is the strongest defense against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological proceeedings of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty.

In other words, the commandment, although noble and imbedded in Christian culture, seems to imply per impossibile that we can have control of our inner emotions”something for which we can grit our teeth, stiffen our upper lip, and just . . . do.

Could anyone, for example, credibly order even their children to love? Rather, we order our children to do things connected with love: “Be generous with your little sister.” “Forgive the boy who said that mean thing.” “Give your Aunt Emma a kiss, even though she scolded you.” “Pray for those bad people you heard about.”

The challenge seems greater when it comes to loving enemies ; and immensely greater with God, whom we cannot see.

One might surmise from Our Lord’s admonition that we can, by an act of will, just start loving God, of whom even the best of us have only the slightest knowledge and little first-hand experience. Of course, grace is supposed to help us overcome recalcitrant feelings. But what if we just don’t seem to have the grace?

The key seems to be in the prepositional phrases that accompany the great commandment:

“With all your mind .” We can , by an act of will, work to increase our knowledge of God”in the Scriptures; in creation, especially living things; and in particular by recognizing the goodness of fellow human beings, developing the ability to discern the image of God in others (maybe, in some exceptionally difficult cases, looking for redeeming qualities or insufficiently activated potentialities).

With all your heart .” We are told, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” And we can control where we put our priorities, and what we “treasure.” We can make efforts to move our focus from distractions that interfere with our service of God. Even in prayer or meditation, the effort to avoid distractions and a wandering imagination is itself a loving act.

With all your soul .” It is quite possible to carry out tasks just bodily or mechanically; or half-heartedly; or with resignation; or with commitment. We do have control over whether our “soul” is invested in what we are doing.

And “loving our neighbor as ourselves” is basically a restatement of the Golden Rule”doing unto others as we would want them to do to us. We are “hardwired” to love ourselves. So the commandment consists in extending to others the same rights and care that we would want from others”acts which may or may not be accompanied by feelings of love.

It must have been difficult for Jesus’ fellow Jews to understand that “the whole law and the prophets” were based on this commandment of love. The multiple ceremonial laws and sacrifices in the Old Testament were said to number exactly 613”even more than the laws we are faced with in our country, governing income taxes, Obamacare, etc. The Old Testament laws included laws in the Decalogue about avoiding theft, murder, adultery, lying, idolatry, and working on the Sabbath; laws regarding circumcision and ritual purity; abstaining from pork and other forbidden meats; observance of Passover, Atonement, and the other five feasts; tithing; laws regarding marriage, slavery, retribution for crimes, etc. Carrying out these duties in the right spirit could translate for Jews into the love of God and neighbor that Jesus characterized as the “greatest” commandment. The danger, of course, was that some Jews, like some of the Pharisees, would become involved in this law-keeping mechanically and ritualistically”the sort of legalism that St. Paul in his epistles contrasted with Christian freedom.

But for the Jews in Jesus’ time, as well as for contemporary Christians, the fulfillment of the greatest commandment boils down to the duties of increasing our knowledge of God, constantly resetting our priorities and purifying our intentions, and implementing the Golden Rule.

Howard P. Kainz is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Marquette University.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles