This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Next to the commandment to love of God above all things, there stands the commandment to love one’s neighbor as we love our very self. God takes this second commandment very seriously, as we can see from the first reading today. The commandment to love God entails the obligation to love our neighbor, to love our neighbor as our self, and that love in the concrete sense requires, at the very least, that I do no evil to my neighbor, but also, beyond that, to do good when my neighbor is in need.
In the first reading from Exodus, we see how seriously God takes the obligation to love our neighbor when God warns His chosen people that his wrath will flare up against those who do wrong to widows, orphans, and even aliens, My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword. Pretty serious stuff, but the language is meant to be shocking to indicate God’s seriousness behind the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Moreover, the text chooses the most vulnerable neighbors as examples, the widow and the orphan who are so dependent on the good will of others, and the alien who is often without rights and subject to exploitation because he is not part of the clan, the tribe, or the country.
We see the same kind of serious condemnations in the great prophets and the minor prophets like Amos who rails against the social injustices in the land of Israel in his day. Amos warns of God’s anger at his people for tolerating such evils in their midst. God warns again and again that the measure of repentance is willingness to undo the wrongs done to one’s neighbor.
Moreover, we see in the Gospels that the way we treat our neighbor, especially the most vulnerable, is going to be part of our final judgment, and we learn that it will be a fearful judgment for those would sin against the obligation to love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus, in the account of the final judgment in St. Matthews gospel, warns us that we will be judged not only in terms of our relationship and obligations to God, but also in accordance with the way we treated our neighbor, the way we treated the hungry, the naked, those oppressed and in prison, who are our neighbors regardless of the fact that they may not be our immediate neighbors or companions. In short, in the eyes of God it is not sufficient that we ourselves do not commit evils against our neighbor, but we are required to do good for our neighbor, and especially for those who are most in need and within the scope of our help. And when we cannot personally bring about their relief, at the very least we must not tolerate it and must do all that we can to remove such evils from our society.
Certainly charity begins at home, and without love and compassion toward those closest to us, our family, our immediate neighbors, we will hardly be likely to care about those who are our neighbors at a distance and who are suffering injustice and neglect.
For instance, an immediate example I think of from past history of our country would be the plight of the slaves in our country. Surely it was not sufficient to fulfill the law of love that a Christian refused to have slaves. Would not the law of love have required Christians without slaves to at least try to extend help to those slaves who were suffering from sickness, from the lack of the necessities of life, and from other forms of extreme hardship? But beyond that, even if we could do little to alleviate their suffering because of the constraints of a slave society, would not Christians be bound by the law of love and by a sense of justice to have done everything they could to overturn that institution by unflagging moral opposition and by whatever legal means were available within the parameters of peace and justice.
And of course the same thing is true today. Does not the law of love require that we strive to overcome whatever is gravely unjust in our society? We cannot remove all injustices, even the smallest, simply by good example and the rule of law. But surely we have an obligation to do what we reasonably can by our personal charity to alleviate the misery of our immediate neighbors, and as many of our more remote neighbors in our country and in the world at large, as is reasonably possible.
But beyond our direct charity, the law of love also requires that we also do what we can to change the laws and the social prejudices that make this injustice possible in the first place. This requires first of all a moral opposition to try to change the hearts of legislators, and those who support them, who are behind the legalization of such injustices. Again it’s not enough that we simply bear witness to our immediate neighbors, our co-workers who support injustice to the weak and vulnerable. We have a right and a duty to do what we can, as peaceful citizens, to change the law that supports such grave injustices. Slavery was eradicated not only by moral opposition, but, unfortunately, by a terrible war costing hundreds of thousands of lives. We cannot take that path again, but we must use our power as citizens to fight another kind of war, a peaceful and unflagging struggle to guarantee the most basic human rights to all. That struggle is not optional for those who truly love their neighbor, who truly desire the most basic human goods for all their neighbors.
So, the question then becomes, who is my neighbor? You remember the parable of the Good Samaritan where that question is raised when Jesus insists that love of God must include love of neighbor. For Jesus, my neighbor ultimately is every man, but our duty towards our neighbors begins especially with those whom we have some power to help. We cannot help everyone, at least materially. For instance, we cannot take care of all the needs of the world’s poor by ourselves. We can provide some assistance, but we cannot by ourselves solve the serious problems that underlie these injustices. We have no power to change the laws or the legislators in other countries where injustice toward the poor is often endemic to that society and its political, social and legal institutions. We can pray for them and do what we can to alleviate the material suffering which is immense. But beyond these things we can do little.
But in our own society, we can and must do a lot more. We should not be shirking our personal involvement and expect the government alone to solve these problems. The government is often part of the problem, especially when its laws are making these social evils possible. We have the right and duty to try to change those institutions that support grave evils. We must also try to change the attitudes of society that support such grave evils, by our moral opposition and willingness to dialogue with anyone who is seeking the truth. We must help people to recognize, for instance, that the unborn child is truly our neighbor. Beyond that, we can and must use our political influence and rights to overturn laws that support such grave injustice.
Love your neighbor as your self does not mean simply wishing our victimized neighbors well. It means first of all supporting them in their immediate needs. It also means defending the basic human rights, above all the right to life, especially of the weak and powerless by using all the peaceful and just means at our disposal to change the attitudes of our neighbors who support these immoral laws, and over time by changing the laws themselves.
We all love this country, and as true patriots we must come to see that the very future of our country depends upon the restoration of the social, political and legal institutions that support human life and dignity in all their grandeur, as a gift from God. This effort to love the least of our brethren by the support of our charity and justice will bear witness that we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.