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Charity: The New Commandment

February 2, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Charity, as defined in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (n. 388). St. Thomas Aquinas, as we saw two weeks ago, describes it as “the mother of all virtues.”

In a similar manner, Fr. Francis Spirago says that charity “may be called the queen of the virtues … [and] the greatest and noblest of all the virtues because it alone unites man to God, it alone gives value to the other virtues, and it alone will last beyond the grave” (The Catechism Explained, pp. 446-447; cf. 1 Cor. 13).

Undeniably, all the other virtues are “rooted and grounded in love [charity]” (Eph. 3:17).

In the definition of charity given above, the “double commandment” is put before us: to love God and to love neighbor. Were similar commands included in Old Testament revelation? In the Book of Deuteronomy, we find a text that — along with the Ten Commandments — is fundamental: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5).

This supplication comprises “the words of the Shema, perhaps the most recited and most beloved prayer of Judaism,” states The Didache Bible (TDB). “It proclaimed the Oneness of God at a time when almost all other peoples embraced polytheism rather than monotheism” (p. 204).

Likewise, in the Book of Leviticus is the following verse: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18b). Several preceding verses (Lev. 19:9-18a) explicitly list specific rules the Jewish people were required to follow in order to observe properly the general precept of love for neighbor.

Even more so, “the mandate to love one’s neighbor is the spirit behind the prohibitions listed in the Decalogue. All civil and ecclesiastical laws are a concrete application of this special commandment” (TDB, p. 136).

Looking now to the New Testament, the Gospels record for us a conversation that took place between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees shortly before His Passion and death on the cross:

“One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets’” (Matt. 22:35-40).

Similar accounts of Jesus’ conversation with the scribes are recorded in the other Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). In each case, Jesus is clear with regard to the primacy of the double commandment of charity in order to attain salvation. For example, to the lawyer in the Gospel of St. Luke the Lord says, “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

One can see in this declaration an unmistakable indication of what Jesus meant during the Sermon on the Mount when He said: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that “Jesus makes charity the new commandment” (CCC, n. 1823), that “the entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the new commandment of Jesus” (CCC, n. 1970).

What is the new commandment? After the Passion and death of Christ, the great mandate of love for neighbor (fraternal love) takes a new form: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).

The Didache Bible offers an excellent commentary on the sense of these far-reaching verses:

“The New Commandment of Love summarizes the message of the entire Gospel. This command to love as Christ loves implies that our dispositions and conduct must reflect that of Christ. Christ must become our internal guide for how we live and what we choose to do….To love as Christ did means to love our neighbor unconditionally. When Christ manifested his love by laying down his life, he taught us that charity involves total self-giving for the good of those we encounter, beginning with those closest to us” (TDB, p. 1442).

The Catechism sets a high standard for the expansiveness of the love to which we are called as Christians: “Christ died out of love for us, while we were still ‘enemies’ (Romans 5:10). The Lord asks us to love as he does, even our enemies, to make ourselves the neighbor of those farthest away, and to love children and the poor as Christ himself” (CCC, n. 1825).

The meaning and the gravity of this mandate are shown in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30-37) and in the teaching of Jesus on the Last Judgment (see Matt. 25:31-46). When the Lord describes the separation of the elect from the condemned, the importance of fraternal charity as a criterion for salvation (and the fallacy of the doctrine of “salvation by faith alone”) seems evident in the words of Christ: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me….Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matt. 25:40, 45).

Is there a hierarchical ordering in charity? Since it is the virtue by which we love God for Himself and neighbor for God’s sake, it is clear there is: God must be loved above all, even more than oneself.

Scripture attests to this, for it is written: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37), and again: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

As clarified in The Didache Bible, “Christ is not calling on his disciples to ‘hate’ their parents and families but rather to make him our first love (cf. CCC, 1618)” (TDB, p. 1385). The inspired writer, in this case, has Jesus using the word “hate” in a hyperbolic form of speech.

The Angelic Doctor provides further insight: “Man ought, out of charity, to love God, Who is the common good of all, more than himself: since happiness is in God as in the universal and fountain principle of all who are able to have a share of that happiness” (Summa Theologiae [STh] II-II, Q. 26, art. 3).

This only makes sense, for God is the common good of Heaven and of all creation, the infinite Source and Giver of all gifts of glory and grace.

Implicit in the wording of the second great commandment (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) is that after God, one should love himself next most with the love of charity. Why is this true? As explained by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn:

“A person rightly loves himself by charity when he seeks to be united with God and to partake of God’s eternal happiness. And a person loves his neighbor as one to whom he wishes this union and happiness. Now, since seeking to obtain something for oneself is a more intense act than wishing well to one’s neighbor, a person manifestly loves himself more than he loves his neighbor. As existence of this fact, consider this: a man would rightly refuse to sin if, by sinning, he could free his neighbor from sin” (A Tour of the Summa [ATS], pp. 204-205; cf. STh II-II, Q. 26, art. 4).

There is, however, a distinction of utmost importance that must be made. Even though the top priority for each person is the salvation of his own soul, the same principle does not apply for his physical body. In other words, we should love our neighbor’s soul (with the love of charity) more than our own corporeal body. Thus, if necessary, we should be prepared to sacrifice our physical well-being for the sake of the eternal salvation of the soul of our neighbor.

Our love must extend to all men, even our enemies, for as Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The ultimate basis for loving all men is given in the Book of Genesis in that every man and woman has been created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26). It follows that if we truly love and honor God, we must love and honor His image in our neighbor.


Our Dearest Ones


Should we love one neighbor more than another? Although we are bound in one sense to wish for all “one same generic good, namely everlasting happiness” (STh II-II, Q. 26, art. 6, ad 1), it is impossible for us to have equal charitable affection and solicitude for everyone.

“Our dearest objects of charity among neighbors,” affirms Msgr. Glenn, “are those who are closest to us by some tie — relationship, common country, and so on” (ATS, p. 205; cf. STh II-II, Q. 26, art. 7).

And we must begin with our own household, for as St. Paul writes: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).


+ + +


(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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