THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)
In today's gospel (Mt 22:34-40), Jesus is asked which commandment in the law is the greatest. Jesus responds by quoting from two Old Testament passages. The first is Deuteronomy 6:5: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength." The second is from Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Why these two passages, out of all the books of the law in the Hebrew scriptures? Because, as Jesus tells us, "The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." We can see what He means by this if we look at the Ten Commandments in particular. The first three commandments instruct us how to best love God (having no other gods before Him, not taking His name in vain, and keeping holy His Sabbath), while the last six commandments instruct us in how to love our neighbor (do not steal, lie, commit adultery, murder, covet, etc.). The fourth commandment serves as a type of hinge between the two: the command to honor your father and mother applies to your heavenly Father as well as your earthly parents. If we truly strive in our hearts to love God and to love our neighbor, obedience to the other commandments follow naturally. If we truly love our neighbor, we do not want to steal from him, murder him, lie to him, covet his wife or property, et al. If we truly love God, we do not want to take his name in vain, worship false gods, etc.
The problem is that we are flawed and fallen creatures, and do not know how to love perfectly on our own. So the law is there to help us learn how to love our neighbors and love God. Jesus is pointing out that the command to love lies at the heart of the law, is the reason for the law, and highest goal of the law. To grow in holiness is to grow in love. Becoming more holy means learning to love God and neighbor with a more pure and perfect love.
But there is a third love mentioned in these commandments which we can sometimes miss; love of self. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. It only follows that if we do not love ourselves we cannot love our neighbors properly.
This love of self can be problematic for some striving to grow in the Christian life. Are we not called by Christ to give up ourselves? Didn't Jesus teach us that the path to holiness involves self-sacrifice? Didn't He show us that there is no greater love than to lay down your own life for a friend (Jn 15:13)? Didn't John the Baptist say that "I must decrease" so that Christ may increase (Jn 3:30)? Didn't St. Paul say that it is "no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20)? Isn't the Christian life about become less selfish and more self-less? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes.
Isn't self love contrary to the virtue of humility? Isn't self love the enemy of the love of God and neighbor? The answer to these questions is no -- at least not proper love of self. Just as we can love others in a disordered way, we can also love ourselves in a disordered way, and therein lies the problem many of us deal with. We do not love ourselves as we ought. How do we love ourselves -- as Christ Himself says we have to do -- properly? That is to say, how do we love ourselves without being self-centered, selfish, conceited and egotistical?
Here's the key: We must love ourselves as God loves us. Proper self-love begins not by turning our hearts in on ourselves, but by turning our hearts outward to God. We know and love God, and come to know that God loves us in return. By doing so we come to know who we are in relation to God (which is, after all, who we truly are in reality). We discover that God looks upon us and sees someone good; someone worth saving; someone, indeed, worth dying for. God loves us with a pure, self-giving love. God loves us with a creating and renewing love. We can explain the reason for our existence in three simple words: God loves us.
A proper love of self means loving ourselves not for our own sake, but for God's sake. We should love ourselves because we are love-able. This is why sin is so bad -- it tarnishes something that is precious to God and turns us into something less than what we were made to be. Because God loves us, He wants us to be holy and happy people, the perfect version of ourselves that He holds in His mind as He creates us. St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking of sin, said that we offend God only when we act against our own good. Sin offends God because it hurts the people He loves, chiefly the one sinning.
To love means to desire the good of the beloved. To love ourselves means desiring our own good. Our good consists in moving away from sin toward holiness and happiness. We are creatures beloved by God, and worthy of being loved. Only when we recognize ourselves as something good and lovable to God can we humbly offer that lovely gift back to Him -- all our heart, all our soul, all our mind -- our total self, made perfect by love.