How to love my neighbour?

love neighbourIf you are looking for an example of persistence and determination in the Bible, you have just found it in our gospel today and it comes in the form of the attitude shown by the Pharisees and elders of the community. In our gospel passage last Sunday, these people thought they had cornered Jesus when they came up with the question regarding paying taxes but that plan backfired when Jesus pointed out how hypocritical they were and the maliciousness of their intent. That humiliation made them even angrier and determined to get rid of Jesus. And so, we are now introduced to the second attempt and this time it was about “which is the greatest commandment?” Since they had failed in trapping Jesus in relation to the Roman authorities, now they turned towards one’s relationship with God. It is not that the Pharisees or the lawyer who questioned Jesus did not know which is the greatest commandment because the “greatest commandment” was part of the confession of faith that all Jews recited twice daily as part of their religious ritual, that is, there is only One God and to love Him with all your heart, soul and might. If Jesus had said anything else, He could not be a prophet. However, Jesus, understanding what their intention was, seems to offer more than what His interrogators expected. Jesus introduces something “new” – an incarnational and tangible expression of God’s love for His people and human love for God.

Jesus’ addition of a second commandment that is closely tied to the first, surprises His audience. By making this addition, what Jesus does is that He intends to break the abstract and theoretical reality of God and making it tangible. At the time of Jesus, a person would have been considered holy, spiritual, or at right with God if he/she kept the Mosaic commandments, went to the Temple, made the proper offerings and observed all the rituals. Though in the Torah there are laws regarding the governance of society, somehow over the years many of these have been forgotten except the insistence of the rituals towards God. The community had forgotten what love of God means and in that process, rites and rituals became the means and end of everything.

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) is a good example of what the society had become. The priest and the Levite who had walked past the injured traveller were afraid because they were on the way to the Temple and in touching the injured man, they would have broken the law of purity. So, they left him by the side of the road. What Jesus was telling His disciples is that rather than the rites and rituals making a person more loving, compassionate and merciful, they became an obstacle. It is the same when addressing the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches His disciples “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24).

We all are aware that loving God is the greatest commandment but Jesus presents love for God as two-directional – one being vertical, the other being horizontal. Jesus wanted to drive the point that loving the God whom we cannot see does not remain an abstract and theoretical reality of purely rites and rituals. He teaches that the love of God must be actualized in loving deeds toward the neighbour that we can see. In the first epistle of John, we read, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1Jn 4:20).

All this leads me to believe that we cannot even begin or claim to love God if we do not love our neighbour. We know from experience that it is not easy to love everyone and I am sure Jesus was also aware of this. But what does the ‘love of neighbour’ actually mean? Is this something “new” being introduced by Jesus? It is not! What Jesus probably had in mind when saying this was the text from the Book of Leviticus 19:9-18, from the Old Testament. In short, what this passage says is that loving your neighbour calls for these actions: share with the poor and the foreigner, be just and honest in your relationships, do not steal from your neighbour, refuse to be part of gossip and slander, do not bear a grudge or seek revenge, and finally show compassion and forgiveness to those in need. This is what it means to love your neighbour… it is something do-able by all who profess to be disciples of Jesus.

All that we do here today in this one hour together, if it does not help us to “love our neighbour”, then there is much soul searching for us to do. The message is clear… if you love God, then let us show it in our love for one another. For it is by our love not just for God but a love that we show for one another in a tangible way that the world will know we are Christians.

– 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)