Love - the greatest commandment

March 02, 2020

Love - the greatest commandment

Anthony Fisher

When award-winning Lebanese-Palestinian Australian poet and activist Candy Royalle was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014, she released a poem entitled simply ‘Love’.[1] The piece explores the shared experience of vulnerability and resilience, of imperfection and compassion, with its final words running ‘If I was king of the world, and all the world was mine, I’d say above all, there’s only one law, and that one law… is… love’. After her death last year the poem emerged as her paradigmatic piece, shared across social media by all who wished to pay her tribute.

Of course, this was not entirely Candy’s invention. A young Jewish man named Jesus told His followers the same thing some two thousand years ago and His words have echoed down the centuries. One law says Candy, one law says Jesus. The greatest commandment, the new commandment. Love God heart and soul and your neighbour as another self; love as I have loved, laying down your life for God and others.[2]

The commandment to love God and neighbour can be read in various ways. Archbishop Davies has suggested reading it chronologically or ontologically: that first we experience God’s love, then we can love others best; first we know love as God understands love, as self-giving, creative, redemptive love; then we share that love with others. The great father of the church, St Basil the Great, taught that we could only love our fellows, and especially strangers and enemies as Jesus invited, if we loved God first; even then, loving strangers and enemies can be very hard.[3] So Archbishop Davies is right: love God first and you’ll love your neighbour; love God first so you can love your neighbour.

But let me also propose the converse when it comes to our experience of love: that most people move from the experience of human love to that of God’s love. Without positive experiences of human love we can really struggle with the idea of a loving God. Divine love teaches human beings how to love well and human love prepares us to recognize divine love and express it well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church observes that ‘All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures—their truth, their goodness, and their beauty—all reflect the infinite perfection of God.‘[4] Behind this is an idea from St Thomas Aquinas and ultimately from the Scriptures: that the truth, goodness, beauty and love experienced in creation point us to and prepare us for knowing and loving our Creator; to dishonour the creation or the creature would, therefore, be to fail in reverence for the Creator.[5]

Here, of course, we join one of the great debates of the Reformation: what comes first, divine or human love? I don’t intend to rehearse or inflame this debate here, but my own thought is that both accounts are true, as far as they go—that love of God and love of neighbour are two sides of the same coin, that each love in some sense entails the other, and that while our love of neighbour may condition our thought, language and piety towards God, once we have experienced the love of God all other loves are shocked, re-examined, purified, reordered.

The great poet of God’s love, St John the Divine, once wrote a letter precisely on these matters.  ‘Beloved,’ he said, ‘let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love, does not know God: for God is love… Anyone who says, ‘I love God’ while hating his brother is a liar… For this is God’s commandment: that he who loves God should love his brother also.’ (1 John 4) To speak untruthfully with or about our neighbour is to deny the One who is Truth Himself; to act badly with or towards our fellows is to contradict the One who is pure Goodness; to crush the beauty of creatures and creation is to dishonour the One in whose Beauty they participate; and to fail to love our fellows is to fail to love the God in whose image they are made. And so St Basil could say that ‘in keeping the first commandment one also keeps the second, and through keeping the second one returns again to the first’.[6]

How is love of God expressed? Worship, adoration, popular and personal piety, are obvious ways. But the double-sided love coin means we can also express love for God by acts of love for our neighbour. Older members of our audience may recall a scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which John Cleese plays Reg, a member of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea. He asks, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ To his frustration his fellows respond with example after example of the benefits of Roman civilisation. ‘All right… all right,’ Reg concedes, ‘but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’[7] Something similar might be said about the indebtedness of our civilisation to Christian love. Reg from the Radical Secularist Front of Victoria asks what Christians have ever done for us and, when he’s told, responds: ‘All right, all right, but apart from the sanity that sanctity brings to a world of sin; or the invention of hospitals, clinics and leprosaria; or the provision of comprehensive primary, secondary and tertiary education; or of orphanages, aged care and so many welfare services; or the many supports for marriage, family and local neighbourhood; or the ending of human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, slavery and the chattel conception of women and children; or the vision of the person and sublime moral code of the Sermon on the Mount that inspire so many; or the promotion of literacy and printing; or the advent of the scientific method and much subsequent research, medicine and technology; or the heritage of Christian art, music, literature and architecture; or our rituals of celebration and grief; or the ideas that ground our politics and much else… apart from all that, what have the Romans and other Christians ever done for us?’

Here the law of love shades into the laws of loving. Love is not the same as giving people whatever they want or approving whatever they do.[8] Nor is everything that masquerades as such real love: some is sentimental, banal, stifling, possessive, exploitative, fraudulent. A man who says he loves his wife but regularly beats her does not understand love. Love requires that you serve the other’s genuine good, making it your own, and such behaviour radically fails to do this. Some cultures express love by giving roses, some by rubbing noses, but no culture worthy of the name makes love by violence. Love has its laws, as well as its socially-constructed expressions. Does our culture really understand what love is? Does our behaviour really tell a love story? The love story of God for humanity told in Jesus Christ is the ultimate test.

St. Jerome told a story of St. John the Divine, by then a doddery old man long retired from his evangelical and caring tasks. The last surviving apostle kept repeating, again and again: ‘Dear children, let us love one another’. Some feared this demonstrated senility, but when one of his disciples asked why he kept saying this, John replied: ‘Because it is the Lord’s commandment: if you keep this one commandment, it will suffice.’[9]


Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has a Doctorate in Bioethics (Oxford). He has held academic posts with the Catholic University, the Catholic Institute of Sydney and the University of Notre Dame. He has been Catholic Archbishop of Sydney since 2014. His most recent books include Catholic Bioethics for a New Millennium (Cambridge University Press, 2012)The Healing Peace of Christ (St Paul's, 2017); and War and Terror, Peace and Hope (St Paul's, 2018).



[2] Matthew 5:43-46; 10:37; 19:19; 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-33; Luke 6:27-35; John 13:34; 14:21-24; 15:9-13,17.

[3] The Asketikon of St. Basil the Great, trans. by Anna M. Silvas (OUP, 2005), Longer Responses, §§1-3.  

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church 41.

[5] St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Apostles Creed, following the Book of Wisdom, and in many other places.

[6] Asketikon, Op. cit., §§1-3.  


[8] Josef Pieper, Op. cit., p187.

[9] The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Vol. 121: St. Jerome, Commentary on Galations, trans. by Andrew Cain (Catholic University of America Press, 2010) 3, 6.10.

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