Charity Is Friendship

The two precepts that summarize the Decalogue contain the fullness of the Gospel law. Those who practise them in their fulness will be true friends of God and will enjoy Him for all eternity.

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Gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A

34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a scholar of the law tested Him by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:34-40).

I – True Friendship

The Gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time presents love of God and, to a lesser extent, love of neighbour as the pinnacle of the commandments. Charity, as St. Paul affirms (cf. 1 Cor 13:13), is the most perfect virtue because, unlike faith and hope, it crosses the thresholds of earthly life and remains, in its fullest expression, for eternity.

But of what does it consist? For St. Thomas Aquinas,1 charity is the friendship between the Father and rational creatures, and the salvation of men and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth depend on it.

Let us briefly outline the notion of friendship in order to understand the invitation that the Lord makes to us when He commands us to love Him above all things and our neighbour as ourselves.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle2 treats the subject with characteristic acuity and clarity, but it is the commentaries of St. Thomas on this work, expounded with the Aquinate’s capacity for synthesis and his spirit of faith, that the Stagirite’s doctrine is illuminated by the light of the Holy Gospel.

The desire to do good

Friendship is an exchange of goods between people, which can be of three kinds: useful, pleasurable or honest. Relationships arising from utilitarian interests or any kind of enjoyment only accidentally deserve the name of friendship, for once the profit or enjoyment that united the friends ends, it immediately ceases.

The example of the prodigal son illustrates this: universally esteemed while he squandered his father’s inheritance on licentious amusements, he was abandoned by those who claimed to be his friends when he fell into poverty.

The only friendship that truly deserves the title is one founded on an honest good, of a spiritual nature and the fruit of virtue. Therefore, only a life guided by right reason, with the indispensable help of grace, produces solid, noble and lasting friendship. Two people who bond in this way can consider themselves friends in the full sense of the term.

St. Thomas also adds that the soul of all the virtues, both theological and cardinal, is charity. Considered by St. Paul as the bond of perfection (cf. Col 3:14), this sovereign virtue presents itself as the only one capable of generating a holy friendship, that is, one that seeks God.

In what sense, then, can it be said that we ought to establish a relationship of friendship with our Creator and our neighbour? Before answering this question, it is necessary to peruse the sacred text with veneration and respect, analysing each of its details in order to establish the necessary presuppositions.

II – The Greatest Commandment

St. Matthew and St. Luke present the doctor of the Law who addresses Jesus as someone who wanted to “put Him to the test” (Lk 10:25). St. Mark, however, adds that he reacted with sincere admiration after hearing the precise answer of the Divine Master: “You are right, Teacher; You have truly said” (12:32) – which prompts Our Lord’s response: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (12:34a).

It is easily concluded that St. Mark was privy to information regarding the episode, which allowed him to narrate it more fully, without, however contradicting the other synoptic Gospels. It is clear from the context that the question was posed with insidious intent, both on the part of the Pharisees in general and this scribe in particular. However, the brilliance of divine knowledge shone so brightly in the answer that it rekindled some embers of righteousness and innocence still hidden in the heart of the interlocutor, eliciting a reaction of good spirit.

Oportet hæreses esse,” says St. Paul. Indeed, there must be heretics and this passage proves that they are providential, since thanks to that malicious enquiry, a vitally important matter was forever sealed by the immutable word of Our Lord.

The idea of the primacy of charity over the other commandments, as set out in Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 6:4-5), was vague and even baffling, because the Pharisees taught that living according to the Law implied following its 613 precepts, of which 365 were negative and 248 positive, with a plethora of absurd interpretations. In the midst of such a tangle of rules – difficult to memorize, let alone put into practice – the Israelites easily felt lost or discouraged.

But Jesus, being the Truth, dispels the miasma of deceit with simple grandeur and such force that from that moment on “no one dared to ask Him any question” (Mk 12:34b).

However, beyond the dispute with the Pharisees, the essence of this Gospel consists in the revelation of charity as the greatest and first commandment. In his epistle, St. John teaches us that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is thus understood that above all laws shines the one that most characterizes the nature of the Creator Himself.

For this reason, the possession of charity makes the human heart similar to that of the Almighty. This necessarily gives rise to a relationship of affection and intimacy with Him, since similarity is the basis of friendship, as the Latin aphorism says: “Similis simili gaudet.”

The fatuous audacity of the Pharisees

34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a scholar of the law tested Him by asking…

The moral foundation of the personality of the Pharisees – as well as that of the Sadducees, whom Jesus had silenced – was self-confidence, hidden under a façade of religiosity. For striving to fulfil an interminable litany of spurious rules and acquiring a degree of knowledge by poring over Scripture with blind pertinacity, they asserted universal supremacy.

Accordingly, they blatantly dared to put Incarnate Wisdom to the test, assuming that they would succeed, unlike their Sadducean adversaries, to whom they were allied only in conniving against Our Lord.

Audacity, when it is springs from pride, is fatuous, as the outcome of this episode will show. At the end of the dispute, nothing will remain of the initial boldness but a few traces of dismay. The sober, luminous and sure response of the Divine Master will triumph over the presumption of that race, filled with itself and therefore completely empty.

An essential question

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”

Pilate’s celebrated question in St. John’s Gospel – “What is truth?” (18:38) has always been considered by scholars as indicative of the gross disorientation of ancient paganism. Losing the notion of truth is tantamount to sailing adrift on the high seas without a compass on a starless night.

Similarly, we can ask what sense it makes for a scholar of the Law to ask Jesus something so basic in public. Undoubtedly, this question bespeaks the religious confusion caused by the prevailing legalism, comprised of hypocrisy and the desire to claim superiority.

We can conclude that the Pharisaic philosophy was a kind of pseudo-religious atheism, in which the figure of God was used for personal gain, in an insane attempt at self-advancement.

The Pharisees wanted to flaunt a false divinization of their own persons, following in Eve’s footsteps when she let herself be seduced by the devil who promised her likeness with the Almighty, free from subjection to Him (cf. Gen 3:5). This horrendous sin necessarily leads to a deviation of reason, which is no longer enlightened by faith, but obscured by ridiculous and primal selfishness.

Divine clarity

37 He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Unlike the Pharisees, who lived under the shadow of a deceptive duplicity, Our Lord is the most brilliant and beautiful manifestation of the truth.

With irresistible conviction, the Incarnate Word proclaims the absolute primacy of love for God, a primacy that He lived and put into practice in its fullness! In His Most Holy Humanity, Jesus brought love for the Father to its zenith by His holiness of life, by His purest virginity and by His supreme dedication, “[He] became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

Our Lord crucified – Private collection

He therefore not only teaches the truth with His lips, but personifies it in every gesture or detail of His fascinating life. In the light of His teaching and His example, we ought to pause to mediate on this commandment which is of the utmost importance and so neglected by men.

Firstly, we should consider that the love that belongs to friendship does not seek a selfish reward, but the good of the one loved. In order to realize the beautiful ideal of an unfeigned and disinterested friendship with God, we need to remove the obstacles that our selfishness imposes, in order to want only His good, that is, His glory, with continuous dedication.

Bearing in mind that God’s greatest interest is that souls be saved, and in the most perfect way, we once again encounter the shining example of the Redeemer. His charity went so far as to offer Himself completely, and without reserve, eager to glorify the Father with a perfect and burning zeal.

Are we also torches that burn exclusively in praise of the Almighty? Or do we mix the execrable leaven of vanity, of the desire for personal projection and power into our apostolate?

Love for creatures must always be subordinate to God

We must remember, therefore, that the Lord is a jealous God and does not tolerate human affection that overflows in a passionate and confused way onto creatures, attributing to them an absolute value that they do not have.

Man is called to love everything for Him and by Him and to never put anything before His Creator. And if he does not take this to its final consequences, he will merit the purifying flames of Purgatory, if not a dark eternity in the depths of hell.

On the other hand, this extraordinary love for God strengthens man, as we read in the Song of Songs: “Love is strong as death” (8:6). Was not Jesus’ charity like that? The wise folly of the Cross shows it. Love overcomes all obstacles and knows no fear. Following the Redeemer’s example, even young girls, animated by charity, gave their lives with formidable courage in varied forms of martyrdom.

We therefore need to focus all our energy, commitment and desire on practising this first commandment, which outshines the others with unparalleled splendour.

The first commandment is the soul of Gospel law

38 “This is the greatest and the first commandment.”

This statement of Our Lord enshrines the central position of God in the lives of the baptized. How many today, even in ecclesiastical ranks, propose a secular faith, based on works of philanthropy devoid of theological meaning? They dogmatize the love of the poor for the sake of the poor, of the marginalized for sake of the marginalized, forgetting that nothing has value unless it is done by God, for God and with God; thus they sadly deprive important corporal works of mercy of their enormous supernatural merit.

St. Matthew will make this truth crystal clear in the 25th chapter of his Gospel, when he describes the great judgement of the Gentiles. The works of charity that it delineates must be carried out for Christ: “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.’” (25:40).

This being the case, it is easily concluded that the first commandment is the soul of the Law: without it, Religion is devoid of content, leaving nothing in its wake but a vague “anthropophilia” of a secularist nature, which in most cases is nothing more than a fallacious resource used by a populist demagogy devoid of value.

The many examples of the saints show this inescapable truth for an authentic disciple of the Divine Master, because none of them were motivated by strictly horizontal and human affections. Rather, the supernatural verticality of love always precedes any work undertaken, even those of material charity, which have been tirelessly promoted by the Church throughout the centuries.

Our neighbour is similar to God

39 “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

God is man’s best friend for, being the supreme Good, and supremely desirable, He created Adam and Eve – and the offspring that would be born from them – in His likeness, to shine like the sun for all eternity, achieving a perfect resemblance to the Creator, within the limits permitted to creatures.

Therefore, every man is called to be a full member of the divine family and, for this reason, he must have towards his neighbour a care analogous to that which he devotes to the Lord of his life. It is in this way that we can understand the theological argument of absolute value of St. John in his epistle:

“For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another […] We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before Him” (1 Jn 3:11, 14-19).

With regard to our neighbour, it is necessary to cultivate a love of spiritual and holy friendship, based on the consideration of his vocation to the supernatural life of grace, through which he is truly a child of God. Because of this bond, established on the basis of a relationship with the Trinity itself, we can understand the striving incumbent on each baptized person to save others, even at the cost of their blood.

This is how the Divine Redeemer acted as the best of friends: He rescued us from the clutches of the devil and death; He offered Himself as a victim of propitiation for our sins.

On this earth, there can be no greater union than that of two children of the light linked by a sincere and disinterested love of God and neighbour. From this spiritual bond comes an imperishable friendship which, as well as being pure, brings inconceivable joy and an inner peace beyond all price. The paradigmatic friends are the saints!

Love is everything!

40 “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Peremptorily concluding His discourse, Our Lord asserts with solid resolve the primacy of charity, the virtue by which men are united to God. The genius of St. Paul fittingly illustrates this verse with words that have spanned the centuries, inspiring true manifestations of love for God on earth:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of Angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor 13: 1-8).

We clearly see that St. Thomas was right: the pinnacle of the spiritual life consists in the perfection of charity, which, as the same Angelic Doctor teaches, is friendship. Therefore, being a saint means nothing other than being a good friend of God.

III – God Desires our Friendship!

In discussing the Gospel, we were able to witness the height, breadth and depth of the love of Our Lord, the best of friends, who gave His life as a ransom for His brethren.

St. Peter teaches that we have been bought at a very high price: the precious Blood of Christ, the Lamb without blemish (cf. 1 Pt 1:18-19). Why did He pay such a high price? 

The secret lies in the destiny reserved for the elect. In fact, in addressing Christians, St. Paul calls them partakers of the vocation that destines them for the inheritance of Heaven (cf. Heb 3:1).

Therefore, it is because we are called to Paradise, to live there in eternal friendship with God, that the Redeemer annihilated Himself, making Himself lower than even a slave. Indeed, it was on account of the Father’s unbridled desire to invite a countless multitude of friends to His heavenly banquet that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Detail of “The Last Supper”, by Giotto di Bondone – Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua (Italy)

It is moving to become aware of the desire of the Blessed Trinity to communicate to the human race the infinite happiness that the Three Persons find in their eternal and immutable relationship. God wants to make us happy for all eternity in His loving company!

How much goodness there is in this divine plan of raising simple, limited and weak creatures, to the beatific vision, through which the Lord, in a certain way, gives Himself to the blessed, making Himself known as He knows Himself and becoming intimate with each one, in order to fill their hearts with unsurpassable joy.

Love is repaid with love, as the saying goes. What should be our response in face of the riches of grace that the Father has poured out on us in torrents of wisdom and prudence (cf. Eph 1:8)? Clearly, it can only be to love Him above all things and our neighbour as ourselves. If we take both of these commandments to their fullest radical expression, we will be good friends of God and worthy of His rewards.

Let us seek to imitate Jesus, who in His most holy Humanity taught us by word and example how to put these two precepts into practice. Let us be sacrificial, combative and generous souls, like the Divine Lamb, to be able to live in a perfect bond of friendship with God and with the Blessed. 

Taken from the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #192.


1 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. II-II, q.23, a.1. The entire theological framework on the subject set out in these lines is based on this article from the Summa.

2 Cf. ARISTOTLE. Nicomachean Ethics. L.VIII.

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