Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – October 25/26, 2008
Dignity/NoVA & Dignity/Washington
There is a story from the Talmud about two great Rabbis who lived a generation before Jesus. One, Rabbi Shammai, was known to be very strict in his views and adherence to the law. One day, a gentile – a non-Jew – came to him and said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole Torah in the time he could maintain his balance standing on one foot. Thinking this ridiculous because the Torah was so involved and substantive, Rabbi Shammai picked up a stick and drove him away! The gentile asked the same question of Rabbi Hillel, who was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity. Rabbi Hillel listened to his question, the man stood on one foot, and the rabbi told him that that the whole of the Torah can be summed up in this: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Needless to say, the man converted!
That story seems appropriate as we continue to read from the 22nd Chapter of Matthew. Last week we heard the story about one group, the Herodians – followers of Herod and collaborators with the Roman occupiers – came to Jesus and sought to “trip him up” with their question about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. Of course, Jesus would not play their game and responded with his line that they should “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew then follows with a story in which Jesus is questioned by the Sadducees about Marriage and the Resurrection … and then we come to the passage today, where Jesus is questioned yet a third time in this very public way. This time, the question comes from a lawyer who is a Pharisee. The lawyer asks Jesus a question that was very frequently a topic of discussion: of all the laws in the Torah, which one was the most important? Jesus had a lot to choose from – as most reckonings say that there are about 613 laws – 248 of which were positive (“thou shalt”) and 365 of which were negative (“thou shalt not”).
Jesus responded to the lawyer’s question with two quotations from the Torah. The first comes from the Sacred Jewish Prayer called the Shema Israel. From the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5), this was and still is recited by pious Jews every morning and evening. “Hear, O Israel, God is One. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This response was probably not a surprise to the lawyer and the others listening. But then Jesus says something that probably did surprise them. He says that the second is like the first, and then quotes from the Leviticus (19:18): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the Law and all of the teachings of the Prophets depend on these two inseparable commandments – Love of God and Love of Neighbor.
Remembering these two commandments is certainly easier than remembering 613 rules and regulations, but if the fundamental definition of what it means to be a person of faith – someone who loves God and loves Neighbor – is so relatively simple and straightforward, why then does it seem to be so difficult to live up to?
There are probably a number of obstacles that can get in our way of fulfilling this second commandment, but let me mention just two of them. First, the commandment is not just to “love your neighbor,” but it’s “love your neighbor as yourself.” I suspect that for many of us – and probably all of us at least occasionally – the “…as yourself” part can get in the way. How well do we truly love ourselves, respect ourselves, value ourselves, care for ourselves? Do we see ourselves as fundamentally good, created in God’s image and likeness? Do we ourselves as the daughters and sons of God that we are?
And even if we do “love ourselves” in the way God wants us to, we’re faced with the question of, “just who is my neighbor?” Herein lies the challenge of putting into concrete practice Jesus’ command – the command which really sums up the entirety of what Christianity is all about.
The beginning of an answer to the question, “who is my neighbor” is suggested in the reading from Exodus: our neighbor is the widow, the orphan, the foreigner who lives among us. Our neighbor is also anyone and everyone who is in need – regardless of race, language, ethnic origin, even regardless of religious connection or political perspective. Given the divisiveness that we see all around us – especially during this political season in which we find ourselves, how many of us can say we truly see the face of our neighbor in the faces of those with whom we disagree on issues of such importance? For me as perhaps for many of us, this can be particularly difficult at a time when some of our fellow citizens around the country are faced with ballot initiatives that seek to further limit the rights of GLBT people. Yes, we must never fail to be neighbor to the least among us … but the Gospel also calls us to “Be Neighbor” even to those who aren’t very neighborly toward us. It’s all too easy to be dismissive of those who would dismiss us – but isn’t the Gospel standard a little higher than that?
To help us get past stumbling blocks that can get in the way of loving God and loving neighbor, it can be helpful to remember that even before these “two commandments of love,” there is another love that makes them possible. Before we can ever hope to love God or love our neighbor, we must remember that God has first loved us. It is precisely God’s love for us that sustains us each and every day. It is God’s love for us that gives us life and breath and without which we would perish. Because we have first been loved by God, we are then able to return that love by putting it into daily practice with every person we meet.
The scriptures today are a timely reminder that these two great commandments – Love of God and Love of Neighbor – go hand in hand. According to Jesus, true love blends of faith (love of God) and justice (love of neighbor). It is impossible to have one without the other. If I have faith and truly love God with all my heart, then it is not possible for me to act with injustice and hate my neighbor. On the other hand, if by my actions and my indifference to others I show that I do not really love my neighbor; if I do not have active concern for the alien (documented or not), the widow, or the orphan; if I do nothing to help the poor and the oppressed and the outcast, and I treat these neighbors with contempt or disdain – then all my claims to love God are nothing but empty words.
While the passage from Exodus provides us with a start, each of us must individually ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Given the circumstances of my life, in what ways am I being asked to love a neighbor in need? As we celebrate this liturgy, let us pray that we may express our love for God in concrete and practical ways by loving every neighbor we encounter.