What a scene today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:34-40] presents! Jesus could well be a modern political candidate – or perhaps a delegate at the Synod of Bishops - being pestered by the media, as each group – Pharisees, Sadducees, scholars of the Law - poses some complex question, clearly trying to trap Jesus in his answer!
Like the earlier questions, this was intended to be tricky – tricky because the Law contains 613 commandments. How then to determine which commandment int he law is the greatest? Few, however, would have quarreled with Jesus’ answer, taken straight from the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6). For centuries, both before Jesus’ time and since, devout Jews have recited those words daily. The lawyer had only asked for one commandment – the greatest one – but Jesus also offered him another – also a familiar one, from the book of Leviticus [Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18]..
Nor was this some isolated injunction. Today’s 1st reading – from Exodus [22:20-26] – illustrates just how demanding the Old Testament is in regard to how to treat one’s neighbor – especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. Hence, the Jewish law’s emphasis on just treatment of foreigners and immigrants. Prejudice against foreigners is nothing new, nor was it confined to ancient Israel, of course. The Old Testament repeatedly reminds the people that they too had once been foreigners and were descended from immigrants – as is true of us here today.
So Jesus’ statement that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is like the commandment to love God was not some new invention. It is deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures, which suggest that, when one wrongs one’s neighbor, one also offends God, in which case God’s justice will make itself felt!
The two commandments are connected, Jesus tells the lawyer. Jesus is here setting out the essential basis for moral living – not something added on to the rest of one’s life, but its essential component. The Bible does not offer quick and easy answers to each and every ethical question that may arise. But what it does do is to describe a relationship between God and us as also among us on which we are challenged to build our individual and collective moral lives.
But who is my neighbor? In Luke’s Gospel [Luke 10:25-37], the lawyer - wanting, we are told, to justify himself - follows up by asking, And who is my neighbor? In this account, there is no follow-up question. Presumably, people took for granted the traditional understanding of neighbor as a fellow-member of the community, a fellow citizen of Israel, someone I am supposed to feel connected to. We can, of course, expand the circle, as Exodus did to include foreigners and immigrants. We can keep expanding the community wider and wider without limit to include ever more people, until we come to consider everyone in the world a neighbor. And, to some extent, that was what Jesus did with the lawyer’s second question in Luke. We are all familiar with his answer – the parable of the Good Samaritan – which certainly suggests a significant broadening in the notion of who my neighbor is.
Still we have to start somewhere. We naturally and inevitably think first and foremost of those we have more concrete connections with as our neighbors. Maybe that’s why we get more excited about 2 nurses in Texas who contracted Ebola (and are thankfully now well) than we do about already almost 10,000 cases (at least half of them fatal) in West Africa. Even worse, people often react to real or imagined threats to themselves and their near neighbors in ways which further erode the connections that create and sustain communities. As NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote one day last week: “People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid.”
Again, we all have to start somewhere. So, of course, it will always be the case that we naturally and inevitably think first and foremost of those we have more concrete connections with as our neighbors. We all start with ourselves and gradually (and with some effort) learn to build bridges outward, starting with family, then moving on to others we share space with or have some common interest with, gradually growing to include all our fellow citizens and, hopefully, even beyond. That is why the commandment says to love your neighbor as yourself. Obviously, we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere starts with ourselves. But a fulfilling human life expands beyond oneself to include others – and then more and more others. The good – but challenging - news that is the Gospel of Jesus keeps expanding the community of neighbors more and more.
Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 26, 2014.