The teacher of the Law thinks he is going to stump Jesus with his question about the greatest command, and Jesus answers simply by reciting the daily Jewish prayer called the Shema (“Hear!”). It is so named after the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which begins, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Jesus then goes beyond the question by quoting what he calls “the second”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which comes from another book of the Law, Leviticus 19:18.
What could be simpler? What could be more obvious? I trust that few if any Jews would disagree. And every Christian knows about this question and Jesus’ answer. But my hunch is that most of us have oversimplified it. If you are like me, at some point in your life, you began to interpret Jesus' double love command in the light of another New Testament statement: “No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:12). Taken by itself, that verse seems to let us off the hook regarding the difficult business of loving an invisible God, and appears to call us to concentrate on loving the visible neighbor.
But of course it is not that simple. The context of 1 John 4 implies that the author is addressing people who think their profession of love of God has absolved them from attending to their neighbor's needs. In Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question, however, he is quite clear that loving God is indeed the first and greatest commandment.
How, then, does one take seriously (and concretely and practically) the command to love the invisible God? Are all followers of Christ to become monks? St. Ignatius (no monk) took this command with full seriousness and even dared to work out a set of “how-to” notes for himself and his companions. The notes comprise the final contemplation in his Spiritual Exercises—“Contemplation to Attain the Love of God”—referring not to God's love of us, which is always given, but our love of God, which always needs coaching.
Ignatius begins by calling the retreatant’s (let's just say “our”) attention to the simple reality that love consists more in deeds than in words, that lovers give what they have to one another. Then he instructs us to place ourselves in the presence of the Lord and the communion of saints and to ask the Lord to wake us up to a knowledge of the gifts we have received (from God, of course) and to stir up gratitude “so that I may become able to love and serve the Divine Majesty in all things.” Now the simple insight begins to dawn: the most direct way we can obey the command to love God is to pay attention to God's gifts.
The remainder of the contemplation presents four concrete ways of getting in touch with those gifts of God. The first is, “I will call back into my memory the gifts I have received—my creation, redemption, and other gifts particular to myself.” In other words, he suggests that we review our life story. Then he tells us to consider how much we ought to offer and give to God, suggesting at this point the famous “Suscipe” prayer, which begins, “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will—all that I have and possess. You, Lord, have given all that to me. I now give it back to you.”
The second way is to consider how God is present within all creatures—in the elements, giving them existence; in plants, giving them life; in animals, giving them sensation; in human beings, giving them intelligence, and finally, how in this way he dwells also in myself, giving me existence, life sensation, and intelligence; and even further, making me his temple, since I am created as a likeness and image of the divine Majesty.
The third way focuses on how God works for me “in all the creatures of the earth.” Finally, the fourth way considers how all good things I discover in and around me are but partial reflections of their source, God.
When we take the command to love God seriously as “the first and greatest,” it is not hard to see how love of neighbor follows from this. When we learn to see all human beings as fellow creatures and co-recipients of God's gifts, we are enabled that much more to love them.