The Twenty Second Week after Pentecost
“So, tell us, Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment?”
I wonder what it must have been like for Jesus to be badgered at every turn by the Pharisees. Here they come again with another trick question. “Surely,” they must have been thinking, “we’ll get him this time.” They want to embarrass him, trip him up, out him as a charlatan.
To understand the huge challenge they pose, we need to know that the Pharisees—the religious extremists of his day—counted 613 distinct commandments that were included in the Torah. They wanted Jesus to pick the greatest and most important one. That’s why this question is not such a simple one and why it is clear that their intentions are suspect.
Debate in the time of Jesus around religious questions was a very popular pastime. People loved to dispute and they loved contradictions but when it came to the importance of the commandments, there could be no ambiguity for Jesus. So he gave them a straightforward, simple answer that left them speechless. Jesus reached back into their own ancient tradition quoted right from their Scripture: “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.”
“You asked for it,” he must have thought. “There it is.” Not 613 commandments. Not 10 commandments. Two great commandments that sum up what God calls us to do. There are no “shalt nots” or prohibitions here. The emphasis is on one word, one sacred activity: love. Jesus proclaims that the law of love is central to the Gospel. That’s probably not the law his critics wanted him to select. Sadly, it does not seem to be the law that informs some religious leaders today.
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.”
It was a funny and sometimes embarrassing contest, and it commanded a growing audience. One morning, the announcer got a big surprise from the third caller. “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. The man had been praying the “Shema,” the centerpiece of Jewish morning prayer.
Given what we have seen unfold in the Middle East this month, I found this a remarkable reminder of what all the great religions hold as the foundation of their faith: Love of God in whatever understanding that may be and love of one another. Yet, that’s not what we find in Israel, Palestine/Gaza, or, in fact, here in our own nation.
For Jesus, a Jewish man living in Palestine, there was no hesitation in answering the question of the religious authorities. 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:
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 ourselves? Of course, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once preached, it is important that first we love ourselves; to care for ourselves, see our value as God’s beloved.
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 whom Jesus would consider our neighbors today: People of color, Native Americans, Muslims, Shiites, Lesbian, Gay, non-binary and Transgender people, the differently abled, Veterans, the frail elderly, those who live with mental illnesses or are overweight or addicted to some substance, those who are different, who look or believe differently from us.
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.
Sadly, much of what we have seen this month in far too many places around our globe and right here in America gives credence to those piercing words of Jonathan Swift, priest, poet and dean of St, Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin: “We have just enough religion to make us hate; but not enough to make us love one another.”