Jesus told us that to gain eternal life we were to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. But isn't it true that no one ever does that? Don't we always fail to love God enough? Isn't any sin a failure to keep that first and most important commandment? Aren't we always therefore in a state of Mortal sin?
What Mr. White was trying to justify the Calvinoid heresy of Total Depravity. But he had asked this question in other debates with Catholics so I was prepared for it. I responded:
That is a very poetic statement. but judged by the standards of poets, all of us are clumsy, anemic, and colorless boors. That is the problem with your interpretation. If we follow your reasoning to its logical conclusion, then we must do nothing but love God every minute of every day. We would not go to work. We would not feed our
children. We would not sleep or eat. Even the act of breathing would detract from our obligation to love God with everything we have.
No, James, this portion of Scripture is not meant to be taken in a crassly literal fashion. It is hyperbolic and allegorical. When I tell my wife that her eyes are limpid pools, and that I couldn't live without her, she actually knows that they are muddy brown and that if she were gone, I would learn to struggle on somehow. We need to understand the words of Jesus as an ethical statement that must be understood
practically. All he was telling us is that our love of God must be the first and most important relationship in our lives before all others. That is what the Three Evangelical Counsels undertaken by vowed religious are supposed to signify. These are Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. The vow of Poverty means that you do not let any created thing come between you and God. The vow of Chastity does not merely deal with sex. In the religious life there is the discipline of "no particular
friendship" that also falls under this rubric so that you do not let any person come between you and God. Finally the vow of obedience is where we submit ourselves so totally that even your own self does not come between you and God.
God does not want to monopolize us. He just wants to be first in our affection. And He intends to reciprocate in kind. As St. Augustine taught, "God loves YOU as if you were the only creature that he had created."
If God gave us this commandment and told us that we needed to fulfill it but then set the standards so high that it was impossible, He would have been dishonest and cruel. Only a monster would place salvific obligations on mankind that were impossible to keep. But Jesus told us that his yoke was light and his burden was sweet. Therefore, he would not ask of us more than we could do and we need to interpret this commandment in a practical way, not an overly idealistic one.
Well, you can imagine Mr. White sputtering and his charges of how "unscholarly" and naive I was. He took umbrage because he thought that I was calling him a monster instead of warning him of what he was making God out to be.
But over the years I have realized that my answer was inadequate. There was more that needed to be said.
This is what Jesus actually taught in context:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.
"Teacher, which is the greatest 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 greatest and first commandment.
And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."
On rereading this I realized that verse 39 is extremely crucial. It really does not add a second commandment. It tells us that that this other commandment is just like the first! But this other commandment tels us not only to love our fellow men and women, but also to love to love ourselves. At first I was confused but then I remembered what had been said elsewhere in Scripture:
"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?
And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'
And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'
For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man.
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.
And it all became clear to me. God has already told us that an ordinate love of our neighbor --and an ordinate love for ourselves -- is in itself love for God. All human beings carry God's image and so when we see ourselves and our fellow humans we should be seeing the image of God within. Loving our neighbor, feeding our children, eating, living, and breathing are all acts that honor God and glorify Him. When we fail to acknowledge the image of God in our fellow humans and in ourselves we are not breaking merely the second commandment. We are breaking the first. This extends even more so to those like Mary and the saints who bear in their lives a greater likeness to God than the ordinary person. To fail to honor them in proportion to their bearing of God's image is to fail to honor God rightly. And THAT would be a mortal sin.