In today’s second reading (Romans 13:8–10), Saint Paul reiterates one of the most famous spiritual sayings in all of history: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment is found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). Moreover, Jesus himself explains that this is one of the greatest commandments (Mark 12:31). Consequently, the Apostle Paul explains that all of the other commandments are “summed up in this saying.”
We often interpret the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves in the following manner: It is evident that all people love themselves to a healthy—if not to an excessive—degree. The world would be a much better place if we loved others even a fraction as much as we loved ourselves. In other words, we tend to think that everyone loves themselves excessively and others insufficiently.
This interpretation, however, misses the heart of this Christian commandment. The problem is not that people love themselves too much and others too little. Indeed, the real problem is this: very few people love themselves (or others) enough! Far too many love themselves for the wrong reasons.
Jesus transforms human love. Baptized Christians do not live—nor do they love—in a purely natural manner. They love in and through and because of Jesus. The dynamics of mere human loving are built upon the good that we recognize in the person or thing that we love. Christian love, by contrast, operates in a completely different way. Christian love—the theological virtue of “charity”—loves for a different motivation and for a different reason. We love in charity because of God’s goodness—not because of our own (or another’s) goodness. God and God’s goodness informs how a Christian loves one’s self and one’s neighbor.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines charity thus: “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (no. 1822). God is at the center of charity. Charity is the virtue by which we love God and all things because of God.
Through the theological virtue of charity, Christians love in and through Jesus. This means that they love because Jesus loves and how Jesus loves. How does Jesus love? He loves all things—infinitely!—because of God’s infinite goodness. Our Lord does not love someone because of their own native and natural goodness. Our native goodness is fragile. Sometimes we are better. Sometimes we are worse. Charity, however, is not proportioned to human capriciousness. Rather, charity loves because of something infinite, certain, supernatural, and glorious—God himself.
Through baptism, we are conformed and configured to Jesus. We are enabled to love as Jesus himself loves. The properly Christian way of loving is to love ourselves and our neighbor because God loves us and our neighbor. And God is always good. He always loves. Thus, the Christian always loves himself or herself—and all others—in God.
Love your neighbor as yourself. In conclusion, no one loves themselves enough or in the right way apart from Jesus. Only those living in union with Jesus love themselves sufficiently. If we try to love ourselves because of ourselves, we do not love ourselves enough. Only those who love themselves because of God and because of his goodness love themselves in the correct way. Only God’s infinite goodness can inform the supernatural love of charity. Any other motivation for love is far too brittle.
Let us, then, contemplate the love of God. May we meditate on God’s goodness—the reason why he loves us and all others. God is always good (and infinitely so). Therefore, he always loves (and infinitely so). And through baptism, Jesus truly enables us to love ourselves and all others as he loves: because of God himself.