Back to Basics

People often wonder, What does it mean to be a good Catholic? A cacophony of voices shouts answers: go to Mass every Sunday; obey the teaching of the pope; be concerned about the poor and about injustice in the world; experience the gifts of God’s Spirit. In an age of hyper-communication Catholics are drowned by a torrent of catechisms, Creeds, papal documents, letters from local bishops, pronouncements from the Vatican, along with confusing interpretations of all of the above in the public media.

In today’s Gospel Jesus confronts a similar situation. A scribe, a specialist in the law, asks Jesus, Which is the first of all the commandments? For Jews of that period God’s love for the people was revealed in the Sinai covenant and in observing all his statutes and ordinances (Dt. 6:2). By Jesus’ time these had been codified into 613 prohibitions or commands. The question of the scribe is genuine. Jesus then responds by quoting the same Torah (covenant law) that the scribe so ardently studied. He cites the opening verses of the Shema’, Hear, O Israel (Dt. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41), recited every day by all Jews, which summons the people to total love of God with heart, mind, soul and strength, a love that springs out of gratitude for what God has done for them.


Citing another text from the Torah, Jesus then says that the second command is: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). Though in Leviticus the neighbor is primarily another Israelite, by the time of Jesus it included non-Jews. In first-century Jewish thought, as yourself, means as though he or she were yourself or as if you were in the same situation as your neighbor. This is a variation of Jesus’ Golden Rule, Do to others whatever you would have them do to you, which is similar to a saying of the first century Rabbi Hillel, What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole law, the rest is commentary (Babylonian Talmud). Today the neighbor may be as near as one’s spouse, or as distant as a homeless person huddled around a heating vent in the depth of winter.

In our somewhat therapeutic culture, the phrase as yourself is often presented as if a healthy self-love is a prerequisite to love of neighbor. Love of neighbor may be extremely difficult for a person undergoing great suffering or one who has been seriously wounded, but its fundamental presupposition is not psychological well-being, but a conviction well expressed by Thomas Merton: The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is a prior commandment to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is God although unworthy or rather irrespective of one’s worth!

Both love of God and of neighbor were not expressed only by prayer and confession; they were enshrined in daily life. Jesus and other first-century Jews prayed at least three times a day, observed the Sabbath as remembrance of God’s creative love and recalled the saving deeds of God in a cycle of feasts (Sabbath, Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, Day of Atonement). The Qumran scrolls show that love of neighbor was to be translated into action, Each one to love his brother [or sister] as himself [or herself], and to support the needy, the poor and the stranger (Damascus Document). The Gospels portray a Jesus whose love of God and neighbor was translated into action by teaching of his Father’s mercy, by healing touches, by confronting the power of evil and by giving himself up to death as an example of The Great Commandment. Such love, as Dorothy Day said, quoting Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, is a harsh and dreadful thing’, [where] our very faith in love has been tried through fire. Rather paradoxically then, what it means to be a Catholic today is expressed in few words and in profoundly simple teaching. When we repeat and live these we are like the scribe, not far from the kingdom of God.

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