Father Nicholas Lang
The Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
A radio station once ran a contest in which the disc jockey invited listeners to tune in their station on their clock radios as their morning wake up call. “Just for fun,’ the announcer said, “When you wake up, call FM-106 and tell us the first words you said when you rolled out of bed. If you’re the third caller, you’ll win $106.”
The first morning, a cheerful disc jockey said, “Caller number three, what did you say when you rolled out of bed this morning?” A groggy voice answered, “Do I smell coffee burning?” Another day, a sleepy caller grumbled, “Damn, I’m late for work again!” And another day a woman caller said, “Honey, did I put the dog out last night?” A muffled voice cursed in the background and groused, “No, you didn’t.”
It was a funny and sometimes embarrassing contest and it commanded a growing audience. One morning, the third caller was a big surprise to the disc jockey. “Good morning, this is station FM-106. You’re on the air. What did you say when you rolled out of bed this morning?”
A voice with a distinct Bronx accent replied, “You want to know my first words in the morning?” The animated DJ said, “Yes, sir! Tell us what you said!”
The voice responded, “Shema, Yisrael Adanoi Eloheinu …Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” There was a moment of confused silence. Then the radio announcer quickly went to a commercial. He was praying the “Shema,” the centerpiece of Jewish morning prayer.
A lawyer approached Jesus to put him to the test. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest.” Bear in mind that this lawyer was a Pharisee and his work as a lawyer involved the hearing of cases in the Temple that involved 613 distinct commandments that were included in the Torah. He wanted Jesus to select the one that out shadowed all the others—the greatest and most important one. That’s why this question is not such a simple one and why it is clear that the lawyer’s intentions are tainted.
Now debate in the time of Jesus—especially around religious questions—was a very popular pastime. The Jews loved to dispute and they loved contradictions. They also loved ambiguity. The story goes that two men went to their rabbi with a dispute. One says, “This man bought a chicken from me. He should pay for it, isn’t that right, Rabbi?” The rabbi answers, “Yes, of course, you are right.” The second man says, “Yes, Rabbi, I bought the chicken from him but I did pay him and I should not have to pay him again. Isn’t that right, Rabbi?” The rabbi answers, “Yes, of course, you are right.”
The rabbi’s wife overhears this conversation and says to her husband, “Don’t be ridiculous. Certainly both men cannot be right.” The rabbi turns to his wife and replies, “Ah, yes, you are right too!” Gee, he could almost have been an Episcopalian!
For Jesus, though, there was no hesitation in answering the question. As a Jew he would have thought first of this keystone of Jewish life and thought. Every morning and every evening, one mantra would have passed through his lips. Shema Yisrael..”Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our Go, the Lord alone.” Every Sabbath service he attended would have begun with it. The Shema had been embedded in his consciousness from his childhood. It is the “creed” that has been called Judaism’s greatest gift to the religious thought of mankind.
My question to the answer Jesus gives us is what has happened to God’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourself? And Jesus was very clear that our neighbor is not just the people next store or our friends. We need not search too hard to see the vilification of marginalized groups: African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Muslims, Shiites, Lesbian, Gay and Transgender people, the differently abled, Veterans, the frail elderly, those who live with mental illnesses or are overweight…the list goes on. Where is God’s commandment to love in that kind of denigration that has raised its ugly head in society?
Hatred is not an innate characteristic. Nobody is born with a “hate gene.” We are, all of us, made in the image of God who is Love. Hatred is learned. One of my favorite adages from the field of behavioral science is this: What we live with we learn; what we learn we practice; what we practice, we become.”
“So, tell us, Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment?” And Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Joining treatment of neighbors with relationship to God is integral to faith since God’s love is worked out through our dealing with others.
We pray, gracious and unconditionally loving God, that you would write those commandments on the hearts of all people so that we will never give credence to those piercing words of *Jonathan Swift: “We have just enough religion to make us hate; but not enough to make us love one another.”
*Jonathan Swift, Anglo-Irish essayist, satirist, poet and priest who became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Dublin.