You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Matthew 22:34-40

You Shall Love Your Neighbor

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Adding the words "as yourself," Jesus has put a mirror in front of us to which we cannot lie; he has given us an infallible measure to discover if we do or do not love our neighbor. We know very well, in every circumstance, what it means to love ourselves, and what we would like others to do for us.

If we pay close attention, we notice that Jesus does not say: "What the other does to you, you do to him." This would still be the "lex talionis": "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

What he does say -- what you would like the other to do to you, you do to him (cf. Matthew 7:12) -- is very different.

Jesus considered love of neighbor as "his commandment," the one in which the whole law is summarized. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). Many identify the whole of Christianity with the precept of love of neighbor, and they are not wrong.

But we must try to go a bit beyond the surface of things. When one speaks of love of neighbor, one thinks immediately of charitable "deeds," of the things that must be done for our neighbor: give him to eat, to drink, visit him; in brief, to help our neighbor. But this is a result of love, it is not yet love. Benevolence comes before beneficence: Before doing good, one must want to do good.

Charity must be "without pretense," that is, sincere (literally, "without hypocrisy," Romans 12:9); one must love "with a pure heart" (1 Peter 1:22). One can, in fact, be charitable and give alms for many reasons that have nothing to do with love: to embellish oneself, to be regarded as a benefactor, to win paradise, and even to appease a bad conscience.

Much of our charity to Third World countries is not dictated by love, but by a bad conscience. We realize the scandalous difference that exists between us and them and we feel responsible in part for their misery. One can lack charity even when "being charitable!"

It would be a fatal error to compare heartfelt love and charitable deeds, or to take refuge in good interior dispositions toward others in order to find in this an excuse for our own lack of active and concrete charity.

If you come across a poor hungry man shivering with cold, said St. James, of what use is it if you say to him: "Poor you, go, warm up and eat something," but give him nothing of what he needs?

"Little children," adds St. John, "let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18). Therefore, it is not about denigrating external works of charity, but about ensuring that the latter are based on a genuine feeling of love and benevolence.

Heartfelt or interior charity is a charity we can all practice, it is universal. It is not a charity that some -- the rich and healthy -- can offer and others -- the poor and sick -- can only receive. All can give and receive it. Moreover, it is extremely concrete. It is a question of beginning to look with new eyes on the situations and people with whom we live. What eyes? It's simple: with the eyes with which we would like God to look at us -- eyes of forgiveness, of benevolence, of understanding, of pardon!

When this occurs, all relationships change. All motives for precaution and hostility that impeded loving a certain person vanish as by a miracle. And that person begins to seem to us what he really is: a poor creature who suffers because of his weaknesses and limitations, like you, like everyone.

It is as if the mask that men and things wear fell off and the person then seems to us what he really is.

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.

[Italian original published in Famiglia Cristiana; translation by ZENIT]

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