As we continue reading from the Gospel of St Matthew (22: 34-40), we see how Jesus counters his adversaries. He had just finished silencing the Sadducees on the question of the resurrection of the dead, when he was assailed by the Pharisees. They wanted Him to pronounce on the ‘Great Commandment in the law’. Jesus assigns equal importance to the two commandments known in the Old Testament and focusses on them the entire content of the law. Loving God with our heart, mind and soul is the first and great commandment, He said, and by the second, which is like it, we ought to love our neighbour as ourselves.

But who is our neighbour? From the parable of the Good Samaritan, we learn that our neighbour is essentially a person in need. In our materialistic age, we think of money as the need, but that simply is not the case. Very often, the other yearns for our love, our time, just a little word or a listening ear. It may not even require our physical presence; sometimes a tinkle, a WhatsApp message, a comforting thought from afar, could save the day. We will never know in advance who we are called to serve, when and how. But serve we must; and those that we serve are our neighbour, and service is the expression of our love.

But then again, what is love? Someone has said: “Love is the most beautiful thing to have, hardest thing to earn and most painful thing to lose”; but far from defining, it makes love seem elusive. In 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, some of love’s attributes make it palpable: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Palpable but not defined. That is because love is a many-splendored thing, largely misunderstood and therefore clichéd, especially in our times. Several Catholic thinkers have dwelt upon this inexhaustible topic, and more recently, in his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis has distinguished between Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity, showing how one merges into another, and how one can even become another. More importantly, he underlines that the first three – human loves – can be tainted if not accompanied by the sweetening grace of divine love, Charity. And, as St Ignatius put it: “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”

We understand love more concretely through the First Reading (Ex 22: 21-27) in which God forbids us to wrong a stranger or oppress him; to afflict a widow or orphan; or to torment a poor man. They are personae miserabiles – people in difficult social, economic and juridical situations. Easing their situation constitutes works of mercy that our Catechism speaks of: “charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbour in his spiritual and bodily necessities.” Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently are spiritual works of mercy; the corporal include giving alms to the poor, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. (Cf. CCC, 2447)

Christian civilisation traditionally grew up on those sublime teachings and achieved a healthy balance between body and spirit down the ages. But alas, with the overpowering rise of godless modernism, haven’t some people grown weary of the teachings that had once nourished them? The consequence of such degradation has been staring us in the face. And with the recent opening of the gates of Europe to hordes of people (refugees, asylum seekers, migrants), some of whom are avowedly spiritual enemies of Christian civilisation (or what is left of it), shouldn’t it be reexamined whether the physical needs of the neighbours are more crucial than the spiritual wellbeing of the household?

St Paul was extremely concerned about the spiritual health of his people. In the Second Reading (1 Thes 1: 5-10), he is all praise for the example that the Thessalonians have set to the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Word of God sounded forth from them like clarion trumpets and their faith went forth everywhere. God was their highest good, from which the good of neighbour flowed. Hence the Apostle is happy to note how they “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from Heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

Would it be wrong to see God’s wrath in terms of environmental disasters and wars? Aren’t we witnessing veiled religious and spiritual wars? Spiritual warfare is a fact of life; we cannot wish it away. So, it would be necessary to reflect on how far enemies of Christianity can be our ‘neighbours’!… Can they be allowed to hack at the very foundations of Christian civilisation… and we foolishly call it ‘love’? We cannot forget our duty to love God above all things, and the neighbour for God’s sake.