There was a good reason why Jesus insisted that the commandment to love God and to love neighbor was essentially one commandment, and none was greater than it. Jesus knew all too well about the possibility, even the human propensity to separate love of God from love of neighbor, the vertical from the horizontal. The quest for the beatific vision, quite separate from loving one’s neighbor, was all too common, and fundamentally flawed. It is the sort of quest we see today when people try to separate spirituality from ethics and ethical responsibility to the other. On this score, see the poignant and powerful treatment of the subject in Miroslav Wolf’s award winning book Exclusion and Embrace. It is true to say we meet God in the other, but it is also true to say that we cannot understand the other unless we know God.
The bifurcation of theology and ethics is yet another casualty of the attempt to ignore that loving God with all our being also entails loving our neighbor as self. In it worst form, it leads to people thinking they can be whole-hearted Christians while ethically misbehaving in various ways. This is the very essence of what Jesus was referred to when he talked about ‘hupokrites’ hypocrisy the disjunction between piety and purity, between talk and walk, between what’s in the heart and what the body is doing.
Sometimes we talk about whole-heartedly loving God, and while that is a good thing, Jesus had something far more profound in mind– the loving of God with the whole self— with all one’s heart, with all one’s mind, with all your spirit (rather than soul), and in addition to all that interior commitment— with all your strength. What exactly would that look like? It means, among other things, being like the runner who is ‘going for it’ going all out to finish the race, to finish well, even to finish first. He is accepting nothing less than his maximum effort, he is striving for nothing less than excellence, he has committed himself to an all or nothing proposition– it’s full bore, or no bore, and further, he has no desire to be a bore.
We get glimpses of this whole self love for God not just from the noted saints like St. Francis who gave it all up, gave it all away, gave all he had to love and serve God. We get glimpses of it when a poor widow with almost no resources throws in her last two pennies into the temple treasury and Jesus holds her up as the example.
Jesus of course warned us about what happens when we don’t do this. He holds up the example of the exceedingly pious and uber-ethical young man who ‘lacked only one thing’ and was asked to sell all the valuable things he had and give to the poor. Be sure of this. Whatever it is that you love more than God— he will require it of you at some point. You will have to lay that dream, that possession, that obsession, on the altar. You will have to furthermore lay yourself on the altar, present yourself as a living sacrifice. God doesn’t merely want something from you God wants you, the person he created in the first place!! No wonder Jesus told his disciples they must take up their crosses and follow him. It’s a life and death matter, and if you would gain your life, you must first lose it in the love of God and the following of his Son. And if you say in your heart of hearts— this is too much for me. I can’t do it… you are right. You can’t under your own steam. The love command brings you to the end of yourself, and throws you right into the arms of God…. who gives what he commands, and enables what he requires.
There have of course been many expressions of this love in song…. but here’s one I love….