For the folks a Gesu parish. With a partial credit to C.S. Lewis’ essay, “First Things and Second Things” …
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Mt 22:39-40).
In today’s Gospel, Jesus leaves us his classic formulation of love, a teaching so simple that a child could grasp it, and yet so challenging that not even the saints quite live it. Christ clearly distinguishes between love of God and love of neighbor, calling love of God the first and greatest commandment and love of neighbor the second. But even though he distinguishes them in this way, Jesus does not separate them. He instead insists that the second is like the first, and uses the same Greek word for both God-love and neighbor-love (ἀγαπάω).
By ranking and relating God-love and neighbor-love in this way, Jesus establishes an order of loves—a hierarchy of first things and second things. There’s a certain rule that applies to everything arranged in this way, a rule that we’ll call the rule of “second things.” The rule goes like this: whenever we prefer the lower to the higher, the part to the whole, and—in general—“second things” to “first things”, we lose not only the first thing (which one would expect), but we lose the second thing as well.
Illustrations of this rule are everywhere. When we put our job before our families, for instance, not only do we hurt our relationship with our family, but we also quickly lose the true pleasure of working. Work uncoupled from community tends to become compulsive rather than rewarding. The same pattern holds for whole societies. The history of the 20th Century has shown that whenever countries violently suppress religion for the sake of human freedom (as they did in the heyday of atheist communism) the result was not only a forgetfulness of God, but a loss of human freedom as well. Whenever we put humanity before divinity, we get neither right.
Though this rule of “second things” holds quite generally, it applies in a special way to Christian marriage. For it is in this particular form of neighbor-love—the love between husbands and wives—that the second commandment is most “like” the first. “Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love,” writes Pope Benedict, “becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (DCE 11). Because marriage is called to bear a special “likeness” to God’s love, our natural human love requires a special form of assistance to meet this standard. We need God to lend His own strength to our love, the seed of which strength he plants in every sacramental marriage.
Because of the special demands of marriage, putting first things takes on special urgency here. When husband and wife do not love each other for God’s sake, even their love for each ends up stunted. Why? We are made with an infinite longing, a yearning to love perfectly and to be loved perfectly. But there is no Mr. or Mrs. Perfect. No single person—no matter how compatible according to eHarmony—can bear the weight of our infinite expectations. After a smooth beginning, marriages almost always pass through a time of trial, even a phase of disillusionment—a time when the other’s faults and limitations become infuriating and when we realize, moreover, that he or she is unlikely to change. It’s then that the proverbial “seven-year itch” arises. And it’s then that our love is either matures into something deeper, or it dies.
It’s also then that we need to call upon the reserves of a love deeper than our natural affection. And our ability to tap into this reservoir depends on the degree to which we have cultivated friendship with God. Entering into friendship—any friendship—increases our ability to see things from that friend’s perspective, to appreciate the things he appreciates and to reject the things that he rejects. God’s friendship is like this too. By entering into friendship with Christ, then I “learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend” (DCE 18).
Prayer and the sacraments give us, little by little, the ability to look at our husband or wife (or any neighbor) through Christ’s eyes. We strengthen this vision when we meditate on Christ in the Gospels, when we receive him worthily in the Eucharist, and when we accept his forgiveness in confession. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Luther pastor killed for resistance to the Nazi party, used to exhort the couple in his wedding homilies, “Live in the forgiveness of one another’s sins.” So essential. But nearly impossible if we have not contemplated Christ’s indulgence toward our own sins.
As Christ sees it, friendship with God is that first thing on which our love of neighbor depends. Hence, taking a moderate time apart to cultivate our friendship with God is not taking “quality time” away from our spouses and our children and our neighbors. It ensures instead that the time we spend with them is “quality;” for prayer changes the quality of our love, salting our love with divine fire. Do I want to be a better husband, wife, father, mother, neighbor? I must put first things first. I must love God more ardently–with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Then can I truly love my neighbor as myself.