When one of the scribes who was sent to test Jesus asked what to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus pointed him back to the great commandment of the law: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” This is the path of salvation in its purest form. Certainly we all like to think that we love God, however, the most difficult part of this saying is the final part, “and love thy neighbor as thyself” If we love God then we must also love those whom God loves – that is we must love all mankind and especially those closest to us, our neighbors.
In order to understand more fully what it means to love our neighbor and how to accomplish this, let us listen to a sermon given by Archimandrite Illarion of Glinsk hermitage (1924-2008), a well-known spiritual father and confessor of the Novgorod diocese.
“Christ teaches us, “Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Mt 5:39). In other words, love him who hates you, betrays you, and slanders you. Love must be selfless and sacrificial. Yet, how difficult it is when it feels as though someone has pierced you with nails and put a spear through your heart! We lack the willingness to endure all this, for love has dried up in our souls. We have become egoists, concentrating on our own selves.
“St Ignatius the God-bearer taught the first Christians that where there is no love, there is no church – only a graceless group of people. St Silouan the Athonite, who lived in the early nineteenth century, likewise wrote that if a person does not have love for his neighbor, if he carries enmity and malice in his heart, the grace of the Holy Spirit will never come to dwell in him. Let us give this some thought: even prayer, which is our spiritual food, loses its power, and the sacrament of Communion will not save a person whose heart simmers with hatred and offendedness. According to the Apostle Paul, the grace of the Holy Spirit will not enter a person who harbors malice and ill against his neighbor, because God is love, the Trinity one in essence and indivisible (Gal 5:18-26). Just as the sphere, the light, and the warmth that comprise the sun are united to each other, so also the persons of the Most Holy Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – are united to each other by love. This is a great and inscrutable mystery. We live in a world created by God’s love. Hence, we must be guided first and foremost not by any constitutional laws but by the commandment given us by Christ.
“What does love for our neighbor begin with?
“The Holy Hierarch Theophan of Vyshensk (Theophan the Recluse) teaches us to begin with little things: treating each other politely and considerately, with sympathy and mutual understanding. If another grieves, you should grieve also; if he rejoices, be cheerful yourself. Help him in illness or in resolving any of life’s problems. If there is someone who treats you spitefully, know that it is not he who is at fault but rather the invisible enemy of men, who is constantly tempting that person and inclining him toward evil. Look for evil in the devil, not in the person. The person, you must forgive and love. God is love, and this means that love is boundless, and that man can never achieve complete perfection in love (There is always more that we have not yet attained)
“Regarding our own time, the Lord Jesus Christ said, “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt 24:12). For this reason, in spite of all the powers of evil that rise up against us, we must be guided by the words of the Gospel: the commandments of love, mercy, and compassion. Does your heart refuse to accept some person? Then humble yourself, be patient. Forgive him, and try accept him into your heart. To do this, you need to struggle mightily with yourself. God’s love forgives all things, but the devil is incapable of forgiving anything. Then there is human love, when people love those who love them and hate those who hate them; this love is very fickle and short lived. Hence, with all our soul’s might, we must strive toward God’s love. Try to love the criminal, the drunkard, the tramp, for they have not always been as they are, and they are our brethren in Christ. It is not a simple thing for a person to rise to this inner disposition.
“Let us remember the events in the lives of the holy saints and luminaries of God. For instance, one of the most revered saints in Russia (and our own patron), St Seraphim of Sarov, who possessed considerable physical strength and had an axe with him when a trio of robbers attacked him to rob him, put down his axe, crossed his arms on his breast, and said, “Do what you must.” The villains beat him so savagely that he nearly died, and he walked hunched over for the rest of his life. Saint Seraphim forgave his offenders and thereby returned them to the path of a virtuous life.
“Let us again turn to the Gospel, … when the Lord was going with His disciples to Jerusalem and a certain Samaritan village refused to receive Him. The Apostles James and John, burning with zeal for their Teacher’s offended honor, offered to call down fire from heaven and destroy the Samaritans. The Lord, however, replied that they did not know of what spirit they were, and that the purpose of the Son of Man’s coming was not to destroy, but to save (Luke 9:51-56).
“To us also, Christ says, “you do not know what manner of spirit you are of.” If we rejoice when someone who is spiteful toward us suffers (when he has trouble at work, or is sick, or there are problems at home), if we intend to get even with him to the fullest, until our wounded self-love is soothed, if upon seeing his hardships we say smugly, “That’s his punishment for what he did to me.” Then the Lord says to us, as it were, “You know not what manner of spirit you are of.” He shows us our spiritual inadequacy, our cruelty of heart, our disordered morality, and calls us to learn to forgive one another, to understand and pity our neighbors.
“(Father Ilarion, when as a young man began coming to the Church,) once asked a man why he went to Church. He answered, “Living in the world, I see people treat each other one way, but when I come to the Church, I see something else: respect, politeness, and warmth among the faithful. I find this particularly spiritually comforting.” ”(Beacon of Hope, Sermon on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost)
Father Illarion’s words describe for us clearly what it means to love our neighbor not with a temporary and flawed worldly love, but with the divine love of God. He also emphasizes the importance of acquiring this divine love of God in our own lives for it is at the root of our salvation. God is love and that love is the very essence of the Holy Trinity. If we do not have love for God and for our neighbor, then we do not have the grace of God living in us.
When the scribe, seeking to justify himself asked “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with the parable of the Good Samaritan, demonstrating that the love of God has no boundaries but encompasses all men – even those we might consider strangers or enemies. Let us then take to heart this task to love our neighbor and in so doing become the instruments by which God extends His love and compassion to each and every person in the world.