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Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 23, 2011 (30A)
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
The two commandments quoted in our Gospel reading are not original to Jesus. This is very old teaching. The command to love God is from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the command to love one’s neighbour is in Leviticus 19:18
Let us look at the first one. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. These are the first lines of what was for the Jews their most important prayer. Every Jew knows this prayer by heart from their earliest days and they recite it every morning and every evening.
The prayer continues: These words which I enjoin on you today shall be written on your heart. You shall repeat them to your children and say them over to them whether at rest in your house or walking abroad, at your lying down and your rising; you shall fasten them on your hand as a sign and on your forehead as a circlet; you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Observant Jews quite literally carry out these injunctions. The words of this prayer are contained in small boxes which they tie to their foreheads and to their left arm during prayer. These small boxes are known as phylacteries and so powerful do they consider this prayer that the phylacteries are believed to bring protection to all who wear them.
The second command, to love one’s neighbour is to be found in the book of Leviticus where it is placed at the end of a whole list of rules regarding relationship with one’s neighbour and it serves as a kind of summary. But we should note that in the context the neighbour referred to quite clearly means a fellow Israelite not a stranger.
So we see that neither of these two commands is original to Jesus. But then neither is the placing of them both together unique to Jesus. In certain Jewish writings they are placed side-by-side in a sort of parallelism.
We can see an instance of this in the Gospel of Luke 10:25-28 where a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus asks him what is written in the Law. The lawyer replies: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and you must love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus then says: You are right, do this and life is yours.
So although neither commandment is original to Jesus and there is nothing new about their being placed together; what is new is that Jesus presents them as dependent on each other. According to Jesus they are inseparable one from the other.
And also new to him is that he widens the definition of neighbour to include everyone—he even goes so far as to say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44) According to Jesus you cannot love God and hate your neighbour.
Now it might seem a very simple observation but one of the reasons the Jews may well have placed these two commandments together is because they both begin with the words you must love.
The Hebrew mind loved wordplay and parallelism. This is very evident in the psalms where quite often two similar sounding phrases are put together even though they mean quite the opposite. So although we can cite instances where these two commands are placed together this may well have been for literary reasons rather than because they were considered to be of equal value.
The rabbis often haggled over the relative hierarchy of various commands of the Lord. They drew a clear distinction between what they called light and heavy commandments. In their view although these two were sometimes placed together they were certainly not of equal weight. The greatest commandment was unquestionably to love God.
But with Jesus everything is given a deeper meaning. And although we can regard the conjunction of the two commandments as being merely connected by the Hebrew fondness for word play there is something in it because the word that connects them is love.
And it is love that Jesus is all about. As Julian of Norwich so wisely said: Love was his meaning…
And love should be our meaning. If we are to learn anything at all from Jesus we should learn how to love.
We will see then that love for God and love for neighbour are quite inseparable and that the word neighbour has the widest possible meaning. My neighbour includes the people next door but it also includes my own family and all the people with whom I am acquainted. That’s not too difficult to cope with.
But Christ’s definition of neighbour includes, as we have seen, our enemies, our opponents, our rivals. This is much more difficult.
But Christ’s definition extends even wider: he includes those we have not met and do not know. He includes people at the furthest corner of the globe, people from our inner cities, people whose culture and way of life are quite alien to us. He includes the prisoner, the drug addict, the homosexual, the homeless, the criminal, the disabled, and the mentally ill; indeed all who are marginalized in any way whatever.
Among our neighbours are the unborn, the elderly in care homes and those with severe learning difficulties. He also includes those who are very hard to love.
It is easy to love God—he is up there in his heaven and doesn’t seem to bother us too much. We can formulate an idea of him and love that. It presents us with few difficulties.
Much harder is to love not an idea but a person. Much harder to love is a person who fails to meet up with our expectations, one who challenges our assumptions, one whose ugliness is more than skin deep.
But then we have to show that our love is more than skin deep.
A journalist visiting Africa watched an attractive young nun dressing the wounds on a man with gangrene in his leg. The journalist was appalled by the wound but was full of admiration for the young nun who seemed to show no disgust as she was cleaning the suppurating wound. ‘I wouldn’t do that for £1,000.’ said the journalist. ‘Neither would I,’ said the nun, ‘I do it for love.’