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Ruth 1:1, 3-6, 14-16, 22, Matthew 22:34-40

The beautiful words that end the gospel reading today – Love God with your whole heart, and your neighbor as yourself – pack a real  punch for me.   Jesus says that the whole law and the prophets (shorthand: the entire Hebrew Bible) is contained in these two texts that he culls from the bible. Love of God and love of neighbor is the whole thing.  Now that’s saying a lot!

But, I’ve always seen a curveball in there. There’s a hidden commandment scrunched in the second part: love your neighbor as yourself.  Notice that it’s not just love your neighbor, but it’s love your neighbor as yourself.  Aye, there’s the rub.

I feel confident that I understand well the meaning of the passage, but I get stuck on that hidden commandment  “love yourself.”  The question becomes: do I really love myself?  and the gospel seems clear in making the love of neighbor dependent on loving myself.   If I do not love myself, then it’s not a very good deal, is it, to love the neighbor as myself.  And thus the conundrum.

You see how we can confuse a perfectly simple situation?  Still, the confusion does bring up an important issue.  One of the nagging ailments that comes with our fast-paced society is a fundamental lack of respect for the self.  We call it many things including  phrases like “poor self-image” and “struggle with self-worth”, and it seems to eat away at a principal truth of our faith: that  God loves us.

Our struggle  in faith is first of all to  believe that truth (God loves me) and then to experience that reality at ever-deeper dimensions of our lives.    A wise spiritual director once put it this way to me, “to love God is to let God love you.”  If I can experience that love of God, then I can let that love flow out to the love of others.  So the deceptively simple command of Jesus (love of God and love of the neighbor) seems to come together as one, or  like two sides of the same  coin.

How do we love God? – as my spiritual director says, by letting God love me.  How do we love the neighbor? -- by letting God love the neighbor through us.  So my original question still remains (do we “love ourselves”?), but the focus shifts radically from   ourselves (and all our unanswered questions and doubts)  to God  -- and that strikes me as a really good shift.

By Tom Shanahan

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