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).