As we continue to hear of the difficult questions posed to Jesus, we come to the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). The second, also essential, follows close behind: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). We ought to honor God in the public square, attending Mass, defending core teachings of the Faith, and avoiding the idols of our time. In addition, we ought to care for the poor and needy, offering our time, talent, and treasure to be present to the disadvantaged. Often, we focus more on one or the other of these commandments. After all, worship and charity seem to be quite different. This focus is good to the extent that we truly put the Great Commandment, love of God, first. Even so, it is easy to miss the unifying connection between these two commandments: charity.
The Catechism, in paragraph 1822, refers to charity as the virtue “by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Both commandments, touching God and neighbor, are encompassed by this virtue. Just as the Great Commandment takes primacy in Jesus’ response, so does love of God take primacy in the virtue of charity. Even love of neighbor, while seemingly centered on our brothers and sisters, is ultimately done for love of God. When we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we love all people for his sake, recognizing that the Lord wants his creation to flourish.
Our readings give us a sort of blueprint for this understanding of charity. Our reading from Exodus gives us a foundation: charity cannot exist in us without justice. Justice, at its core, means giving the other person what is due to him. If we wrong the widow, the orphan, the poor, or our neighbor, we cannot possibly move forward in acting out of love for them. We must treat all people as they deserve, created in God’s image and likeness. This is the minimum, asked of the Hebrews immediately upon being freed from Egyptian slavery. Still drawn to idolatry, they were expected to be just.
Once we learn to be just, as even the pagans were, we turn our thoughts to God. The Psalmist expresses this beautifully, proclaiming God as his strength, rock, fortress, and deliverer. “The LORD lives and blessed be my rock! Extolled be God my savior” (Ps 18:47). We proclaim in reply, “I love you, Lord, my strength.” All charity, as seen in the Catechism, begins with love of God. As Love himself, the Lord is the perfect object of our love. He gives us all that we need and even more, equipping us for a life of joy. Throughout our trials and triumphs, he is present. Beyond what he gives us, God is always worthy to be praised and loved, perfect and wonderful as he is. God is to be loved with all of our strength. This is why love of God is the Great Commandment.
Saint Paul shows us the flowering of charity in our second reading. Having practiced justice and the love of God, we can perfect our love of neighbor. The Thessalonians impress Paul precisely in showing this charity: not only did they hear the words of the Lord and implement them, but they spread them far and wide. They cared so deeply for their brothers and sisters that they could not bear to see them deprived of the grace of God. They strove to bring all to Christ, both to fulfill God’s will and to serve their neighbor. Their evangelization was an act of love for neighbor, but it was done out of love for God. This unity of the commandments is exactly what charity calls for. We practice justice, love God in himself, and love God in our neighbor, all at the same time.
Often, we hear gospel passages such as this one and remain at the surface. It is fairly easy to imagine what Jesus means when he tells us to love God and to love our neighbor. However, when we read in context and look for the depth of God’s Word, we can see the riches of a life of charity, lived in union with God and in communion with our neighbors.
David Dashiell is the Associate Director of Liturgy for a group of parishes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he is not spending time with his wife and infant daughter, he is writing on philosophy and theology for various online publications. You can find some of these in Crisis Magazine and the Imaginative Conservative, and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.