by S M Chen
Submitted Sept. 10, 2014

The first great commandment of Holy Writ is to “love the Lord thy God” with heart, soul, strength and mind (Luke 10:27). And the second, like unto it, is to love “thy neighbor as thyself” (same verse).

As with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, it seems so much easier, at times, to follow the first. Yet Jesus admonished, if we cannot love our brother (for we are all His children, are we not?), whom we have seen, how can we love God, whom we have not seen?

There have been numerous attempts in the secular sector to illustrate the importance of the second commandment.

James Leigh Hunt, in the short poem, “Abou Ben Adhem,” deals with it thusly:

“What writest thou?” – the vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, ‘I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.’

“The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, became a Christian in his later years, and wrote a number of morality tales. Among them was one called “Where Love Is, God Is.” A moving short story, it may be found in English translation here:

In brief, it relates the story of a cobbler who, in his profound grief over the deaths of his wife and children, relinquished God. A pilgrim convinced the cobbler that he should live for God and not question God’s will. The cobbler bought a Bible and became devout. Soon he thought he heard the voice of God (or was it a dream? he wasn’t sure) telling him He would pay a visit the next day. While waiting for God to arrive, the cobbler interacted with a number of different people, including a man (whom the cobbler invited in for a warm drink), a young woman with an inadequately dressed baby (to whom the cobbler gave clothes and money), and a young boy who was stealing from an older lady (the cobbler intervened and showed them both compassion). That night the cobbler wondered why God had not visited him. He was then reminded of the three people to whom he had shown love, and suddenly realized that God had visited after all.

While prominent figures in Christianity (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, Father Damien, Mother Teresa) seemingly followed the second commandment in their lives pursuant to the first, perhaps it is also possible to, in practicing the second great commandment, more fully exemplify the first.

There are, of course, individuals and groups that practice the second commandment without necessarily being Christian (or religious, for that matter). Conversely, there are those who lay claim to practicing the first great commandment, but fail abysmally in keeping the second. Much mischief and harm have been caused by this latter group, which fostered the Crusades and the Inquisition as well as countless pogroms. And Christ was crucified by those who professed to be keepers of the first commandment.

As John Danforth (priest, ambassador, senator) put it, “Plenty of kind, decent, caring people have no religious beliefs, and they act out of the goodness of their hearts.”

But, if Jeremiah’s take on the human condition is as true today as it was when he lived, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9).

So it may be reasonable to assume that, as a friend expressed it, “Goodness comes from God.” If that be true, the people of whom Danforth wrote may indeed profess to have no religious beliefs, but they have yet allowed something of the Divine to touch their lives, and, like Abou Ben Adhem, they love their fellow man.

The world is a better place because of them.