Just you and me, God?
Our personal relationship with God is the focus of our lives.
But a one-to-one relationship with God is not enough.
Today’s readings all remind us that our relationship with God is inextricably bound with how we relate to our fellow human beings.
In the Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40), our Lord is asked “which commandment in the law is the greatest.” Christ gives TWO commandments, bound closely together: love God; love your neighbor.
St. John in his first epistle (1 John 4:20 – not today’s epistle) makes explicit what connects these two commandments:
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.
Of course, what is meant by “love” is not simply a warm feeling: it must have a real effect, as St. James says in his epistle (James 2:15-16):
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
"Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,"
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
Today’s first reading (Exodus 22:20-26) is likewise specific. Indeed, thousands of years after these words were first set down, they relate to topics in our own day that are very controversial: mistreatment of immigrants, protection of the helpless, stopping predatory lending practices, and so forth.
However, we need to be careful. Scripture does not demand that we replicate the socioeconomic structures and environment of an ancient utopia, yet neither do we dare dismiss this passage as irrelevant to modern situations. These words are profoundly relevant, both on a macroeconomic level and on the level of individual relationships.
Each of us need to seriously consider the basic meaning of God’s words and how we might best put them into practice: as individuals, as communities, and as a society.
Reasonable people can disagree about which practical approaches may be the most effective, but none of us dare ignore what the Lord says or ignore "a brother in need."
The needy are all around us and none of us is totally without at least some ability to make a difference in our own ways.
As St. John says (1 John 3:17):
If someone who has worldly means
sees a brother in need
and refuses him compassion,
how can the love of God remain in him?
However, we must also remember that what we do for others must involve more than just their practical needs: we have a role in their spiritual lives as well.
Thus in today’s epistle (1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10), St. Paul writes about how the Thessalonians’ faith in Christ has made an impact on other people far and wide “so that you became a model for all the believers.”
The bottom line is that our personal relationship with God necessarily involves others.
We have our orders.
You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments – both of them – everything depends.