Hi, Neighbor!

Posted on 22 Nov 2017

Fr. Martin C. Yost
Proper 25 Year A
October 29, 2017

In today’s Gospel once again we see Jesus in controversy with the Pharisees. This time it is not a highly charged political question like paying taxes to Caesar, but a question concerning the Torah, the Jewish religious law.

One of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asks Jesus a question, “tempting him,” Matthew tells us, that is, to test Jesus, in order to trip him up. “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” The Pharisee addresses Jesus as “master” or  “teacher” only cynically, but Jesus does not answer polemically. His answer, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” is not surprising. This summary of the law that we hear at the beginning of Mass does not originate with the Prayer Book, certainly, nor even with Jesus himself. We find it in Deuteronomy (6:5). It is the second part of the Shema, the first prayer every Jew learns, the basic and essential creed of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” This means that to God we must give total love, a love that dominates our emotions, directs our thoughts and drives our actions. But this love is not so much an attitude or affection as it is a way of life. It is a commandant. Mere feelings or emotions cannot be commanded. True religion begins with the love of God, the will to love God.

Jesus has answered the lawyer’s question, but he does not stop there. Although it is not asked, he goes on to say, “The second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Here again is nothing new. The commandment to love one’s neighbor comes from Leviticus (19:18), as we heard in the first lesson. What is new is the way Jesus puts them together: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, everything else depends on love of God and love of neighbor. The two cannot be separated. You cannot have one without the other. Love of God that does not issue in the love of neighbor is barren; and without love for God, love of neighbor is no more than enlightened self-interest, a refined form of self-love.

Have no doubt, love of God is first; but we must then love our neighbor because we love God, for God has made our neighbor in his image. In Christ was the fullness of God among men in the likeness of Man. Service to others is service to Christ. The Incarnation means that we cannot love God without loving our neighbor. And to love one’s neighbor is to love God.

When Saint Thomas Aquinas writes about religion, he discusses it as an aspect of justice. We might expect that justice would come under the heading of religion, so that a religious person will be just. But Aquinas puts it the other way around. A just person will be religious. That is because justice is about giving another his due. To love God is to give to God what is due to him. And to love our neighbor is to give what is due because our neighbor is made in the image of God. To love God, and to love our neighbor—this is true religion.

However, it is only in loving God that man becomes lovable. Without the love of God, we would be pessimistic about our fellow men and women who too often seem unteachable and irreformable. Many of the horrors of human history, and especially the totalitarian ideologies of this century and the last, arise in some sense from an attempt to love man without loving God. Well-intentioned ideas, whether social, political, or economic, that promise to bring about an earthly paradise have, in the face of human reality, descended into manipulation and domination. Without God, every one of us would “love” our neighbor into subjection. When we fail to see the image of God in others, we will want to remake them in our own image. Without God, we do not understand and cannot properly respect man’s true nature and dignity.

To be religious is to be just: to love God and the brother or sister God has made in his image. It is to love both God and our neighbor not with vague sentimentality but with a commitment of the will that issues in devotion to God and practical service to neighbor.

There is a special challenge in a society such as ours that, despite many pressing problems, is largely just, especially when compared to other places around the world today or to societies in the past. The response to human need carried out by so many institutions, whether public or private, can easily lead us to think that we fulfill the commandment to love by our commitment to a particular vision of the social or political order. What is required for a specifically Christian charity is a human face: one made in the image of God reaching out to another made in the image of God.

As Clement of Alexandria in the second century wrote, “You have seen your brother, you have seen God.”