The two great commandments of the Christian religion:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A religion scholar asked Jesus one day what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what the Law said, to which the scholar spit back the two great commandments. Jesus responded, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Typical of us humans who have an incessant compulsion to take what is black and white and make it gray, the religion scholar asked, “Ya but, who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told what is probably the best known story of all time, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The religion scholar correctly linked the two great commandments to eternal life. Jesus’ agreement with the scholar’s answer to his own question apparently gave credence to a formula: follow the commandments and you will live. That’s the whole purpose of the great commandments isn’t it, to get us into heaven? Of course, as with any law or legal requirement, it makes perfect sense to define the boundaries of the law so we know exactly what’s required. If I am to love my neighbor, it is imperative to know who my neighbor is. Then, when I love that person, I can know that I will be rewarded with eternal life.

But, as Thomas Merton said, “Faith goes beyond words and formulas and brings us the light of God Himself.” Jesus knew this, as well. When he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he smashed the religion scholar’s idea that eternal life could be had by obeying the two great commandments, as if they were purely a moral code, which, if kept successfully, would assure access to heaven. Jesus was not inclined to make it easy for anyone. He told the religion scholar by way of the Parable that there is no limit to love, whatsoever. The second commandment applies to everyone, everywhere, all the time, regardless of cost. The Samaritan in the parable showed love to a complete stranger by binding his wounds and taking him to an inn for follow-up care. He gave the innkeeper money to cover the cost of the man’s care and promised full payment for any other expenses when he returned.

I believe that the two great commandments are much bigger that I have been led to believe. They are not just the two distinctive markers of a great world religion. They are not simply summary statements of all moral law. The two great commandments make the difference between life and death, peace and war, survival and annihilation. Imagine, for a moment, that no one loved anyone else, including one’s own self. Get the picture? It is impossible to overstate the importance of these two commandments for the future of our planet.

Love is not just more Sunday School, flannel board fluff, though. Jesus had neither the time, nor the inclination, to play footsies with religion and philosophy. He came to address the most fundamental needs of our planet. He meant business, and when he spoke, he didn’t just lay out what a good Christian worthy of leading worship band on Sunday morning should look like. He meant to tell us what it will take to keep from hurting, damaging, and killing human beings: love, all the time, everywhere, toward everybody, at all cost.

There’s another reason why love is so important. The need for love is a fundamental human need. Without it, people are pretty screwed up. Just look to the foster care system in the U.S. or orphanages worldwide. Most of the kids who are institutionalized never have anyone who really loves them. Both the kids and society at large pay a huge price for that failure. You would think that not being loved would lead someone simply to think that no one loves them, oh well. But for reasons that I don’t understand, the lack of love has far reaching consequences. It is very surprising that, when we observe those consequences in life, we don’t automatically link them back to a lack of love, even though, in most cases, that’s exactly what has happened. In fact, I can identify ways that lack of love from my parents while a young child has worked its way out in my adult life. Those consequences are hardly trivial and represent a huge burden in my life. For five decades, I never linked lack of love as a child to bad behaviors and attitudes in my adult life because the link was not obvious. Now I know better.

Lack of love produces people who have twisted ideas of right and wrong. Lack of love damages and destroys families and marriages every day. Lack of love makes honest communication difficult, separating people who need to be together. Lack of being loved leads a person to hate themselves. Lack of love forces people to mount defensive barriers like overeating, anorexia, cutting, masturbation, workaholism, alcoholism, uncontrolled gambling, drug abuse, child abuse, and many other behaviors and attitudes that show up on the evening news every day. Lack of love leads to corporate and societal greed. Lack of love leads to war. Lack of love is death.

Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not just your mother’s advice.