“Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”
The 26-year-old nurse was in his room often, from the day he was placed in intensive care until the day before he died. She never left his side. She drew his blood, put tubes down his throat, wiped his saliva and cleaned up his diarrhea. She never stopped caring for him even though he had the deadly Ebola virus. We know her now as the first person in the United States to contract the deadly disease. She went from being a care giver to a patient. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The group of hikers was climbing the rocks on Fogarty Creek along the Oregon coast, when the incoming tide left them stranded. The rising tides came up very rapidly and cut them off from shore as 15-foot waves crashed around them. Three of the eight hikers tried to swim to shore, but that quickly proved impossible. It was then that two bystanders—complete strangers to the stranded hikers—jumped in the water trying to reach the three swimmers who were now drowning. Other bystanders formed a human chain, linking their arms to reach the swimmers, and pulled them out of the water. One of the bystanders then gave CPR to revive one of the hikers. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Patricia and her daughter Jessica were walking after dinner on Sunday, just two weeks ago – it was something they did often. They’d talked and prayed a novena to our blessed mother—“Mary, Undoer of Knots”—as they walked. It was early evening and the sun had just slipped below the horizon. The driver was approaching them from behind and he never even saw them. Both were killed, and in an instant, a family lost two precious members. As the father and his other son and daughter held a brief press conference, they explained as best they could that they were hurting terribly and somehow holding-up. They also said that they were praying for the driver of that vehicle that had claimed their mother and sister. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It was nothing less than a trap in a hostile setting when a scholar of the law asked Jesus, “Which, of all of these laws, is the greatest?” There were more than 600 of them; all of the “do’s and don’ts about living a good Jewish life. Everything from how to wash your hands, to cutting your food, to growing a beard and dressing for a funeral. And because there were so many detailed requirements and endless distinctions, it was nearly impossible to, “get to the heart of what was essential.” Jesus was asked to pick one commandment, but he answers with two; two as one. First, Love God with your entire being; with everything we have—“whole-hearted, not lackadaisical; outgoing, not introverted; with conviction, courage and commitment.” And the second, like the first, “Love your neighbor . . . as yourself.”
Love God! Who could take issue with that? God is the source of life itself. It was out of God’s love that we came from nothing, created in His image. “When we say ‘God,’ we are confessing God . . . who is infinitely beneficent and infinitely lovable.” And God’s relationship with us, “is not one of power or indifference, but of affection, of love.” God cares about us; cares about what happens to us.
So, how do we know that we are really loving God . . . enough? By bringing these two commandments—love of God and love of neighbor—together, Jesus makes it quite clear that the love we have for God is measured by how we love our neighbors. We can’t say we love God if we’re not loving our neighbor.
And Jesus is not talking about loving our neighbor in the abstract—not just those who live in our subdivisions; those whose children ride the same school bus with our children. So, who is this neighbor? In Jesus’ day, the neighbors were aliens, widows, orphans and the poor. Today, we still have the aliens and we still have the poor. And there are the overlooked, those we don’t even know—those without voice and power, those who have infectious diseases, those who are in trouble and need rescuing, those who take the lives of loved-ones in tragic accidents, those with the faces we have so much trouble looking at. It is those faces, of those neighbors—Jesus links our love for them with our love for God.
You know, with Jesus, love can seem so difficult at times. His love is the kind of that makes demands on us. We know what this love is like—it’s hard; it’s serving others. It’s the kind of love we can prove we’ve done because we have the scars and callouses to show for it. It is the love that is the eternal in us. It is the only thing we take with us from this life into the next. And that makes it worth it.
It’s a lot to ask of us. But Jesus is the one person who can get away with asking us. He can demand this love because he’s done it. He even took it to an extreme. He put up his life for us. So, if God can go that far to prove his love for us, we dare not do any less for our neighbor.
Today, in those precious few moments, right after we receive Holy Communion, when we have the God of love within us, ask him how you’re doing in loving your neighbor. Ask Jesus who loves us with his whole being, with all of his body and blood. Ask him, “How am I doing in loving my neighbor? How can I do more for the neediest in society and . . . and do it better?” And promise him that you’ll do more to love our neighbors so that we can love him more “with all of our hearts, souls, and minds.”
Bergant, Dianne and Richard Fragomeni. Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Buetow, Harold A. God Still Speaks: Listen! Staten Island: Alba House, 1995.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #’s 2085, 2086 and 2087
First Impressions http://www.preacherexchange.com/
Gomes, Peter J. Sermons, Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1998.
Wallace, James A. with Robert Waznak and Guerric DeBona. Lift Up Your Hearts, Homilies for the “A” Cycle. New York: Paulist Press, 2004.