The Greatest Commandment!

The Greatest Commandment

St. Paul tells us that of all the virtues the greatest is Charity (cf: 1Cor: 13). Unfortunately this word rings hollowly in English ears because its modern meaning is more akin to unfeeling humanitarianism. Hence the simile used for the title of this article.

A closer modern English rendering might be “love”, but again unfortunately this word has too vague a meaning in present-day English, a language which has never possessed the rich “love” vocabulary of the New Testament Greek, which has several words for “love”: eros (sexual love), storge, pronounced “storgay” (familial love), philia (love between friends), philanthropia (humanitarianism), and agape, pronounced “agapay”. It is this last word, agape, a love based on a reasoning attachment to another, constituted by a deliberate choice of, and respect and reverence for that other, i.e. God and one’s neighbour, that St Jerome, the author of the Latin Vulgate, seemed to be trying to express when he used the Latin Word, “caritas”. When of course the Vulgate first appeared in its English translation, the writers simply transliterated “caritas” into “charity”, a fact which explains the modern confusion.

But to return to St Paul. He without a doubt emphasises the priority of charity in Christian living. If we take his meaning as the “agape” of the original Greek and accept St Jerome’s interpretation of this “agape” as explained above, can this then serve as a guide for today’s Christian?’

I suggest that it cannot! If for instance I am trying to decide how I should help my neighbour in some concrete instance, it is no good asking myself whether I am aware of a reasoning attachment to him/her, characterised by reverence or respect. Even if I were indeed conscious of these elements in my relationship, I would still have to decide on my behaviour on other grounds. My loving relationship could in no way tell me how to relate in any specific instance. “Love” (agape, caritas) is far too general a concept for that. Nor could I inspect the behaviour I am contemplating and tell myself it is loving or otherwise. Behaviours do not come with handy labels attached, telling the agent they are good or bad.

What I am getting at is that we cannot learn what love is simply by being given a highly abstract definition, and then waiting for that definition to be identified by ourselves in our daily lives. What usually happens is that we witness particular instances of people relating to one another, and then we are told that such behaviour is an example of love. So the young child learns that his/her parents love him/her in the multitudinous ways in which they care for him/her as he/she grows up. At the same time he/she learns what love is. The young couple contemplating marriage learn of their mutual love in the multifaceted relations of their courtship. They also deepen their appreciation of what love really is. In our daily interactions we experience particular relationships. Thus the meaning of “love” is grasped and deepened. “Love” then seems to he a general term we use for a host of behaviours, whose desirability we accept on SPECIFIC and PARTICULAR grounds.

The command to love one another seems, therefore, to offer serious difficulties to the sincere Christian. God seems to be asking the impossible! An abstract definition of love is useless as a guide to action. What is needed is a series of examples.

And God in his providence provides us with the only possible solution. In the person of Jesus Christ he gives us the perfect exemplar. Through his incarnation, life, death and resurrection Christ provides us with the example par excellence of how to lead a life of love. If we ask: “How do I try to relate to God and my neighbour?”, the answer is: “Be Christ-like!”. To appreciate the fullness of love we have to see another acting always in a loving relationship. Jesus Christ is that UNIQUE other. Not merely is he the manifestation of God’s love for us, he is also the model of how we might love God and our neighbour.

St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, has left us Christ’s own prophetic words at the Last Supper: “Greater love than this no man has, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:15).

[quote=JayBee] Thus the meaning of “love” is grasped and deepened. “Love” then seems to he a general term we use for a host of behaviours, whose desirability we accept on SPECIFIC and PARTICULAR grounds.


Catherine of Siena wrote of great lengths on this topi in her Dialogue. I have found that work the most helpful in realizing how best to love another person; through God. Many ofthe toher mystics write so much emphasis on detaching oneself from affections towards creatures, that the impression people some times recieve is that people should ignore everything but God. Not an entirely accurate or helpful interpretation. Catherine emhasizes how how to love perfectly; thinking of God in all affections towards others, in order to make sure that people don’t love peopel above God, but love God through people…if that makes sense. Obvioulsy she is much better at interpreting directions form the Bible than I am…

Hello JayBee,

Jesus and others clearly define love in scriptures.

Please visit

NAB MAT 25:31

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (ISA 58)NIV 1JO 5:3

This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.**NIV JOH 14:15

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

**NAB 2JO 1:5 **

But now, my Lady, I would make this request of you (not as if I were writing you some new commandment; rather, it is a commandment we have had from the start): let us love one another. This love involves our walking according to the commandments, and as you have heard from the beginning, the commandment is the way in which you should walk.


"These then are the commandments, the statutes and decrees which the LORD, your God, has ordered that you be taught to observe in the land into which you are crossing for conquest, so that you and your son and your grandson may fear the LORD, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life. Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them, that you may grow and prosper the more in keeping with the promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers, to give you a land flowing with milk and honey." The great commandment. Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.

NAB ROM 13 Love Fulfills the Law.

Owe no debt to anyone except the debt that binds us to love one another. He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and any other commandment there may be are all summed up in this, saying (namely) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love never wrongs the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.

Peace in Christ,
Steven Merten

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