by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. The whole Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” Matthew 22, 34-40
A couple of years ago, I came across a moving article in the Jesuit magazine America. It was written by a man whose son, Chris, had died seven years earlier at the age of 19, from a ruptured brain aneurysm. In a casual family conversation shortly before his unexpected death, Chris had commented that he was going to tick the box to be an organ donor when he renewed his driver’s licence. So, in the bewildering hours after their son’s death, the young man’s parents decided to donate his vital organs. “It was simply an affirmation of our son’s generosity”, wrote his father. Three months later, while their grief was still keen, Chris’ parents received a letter, which read: “I cannot possibly imagine the grief caused by your loss. Certainly, there are no words anyone could say or write that could extinguish that pain. Nevertheless, you have shared with me the grandest gift I will ever receive. – the gift of life.” In his article, Chris’ father tells how he and his wife eventually met up with the five people who has successfully received Chris’ organs. He concludes his piece with the following reflection:
“The experience of losing Christopher, but knowing his death meant life for five others, changed me in ways I never thought possible. I learned that it’s possible to see God in all things, even in tragedy. The more I learned about the science of organ transplantation, the more confident I have become in the existence of God. I learned that the butterfly effect is real, that something as seemingly inconsequential as checking a box while applying for a driver’s licence can have a tremendous effect years later and miles away. Most of all, in the face of all the division and distrust in the world today, I learned that how we treat each other matters. If the heart of a 19-year-old while boy beating inside the chest of a 65-year-old black man does not give me hope, then I do not know what hope is.” Eric Gregory, My Son’s Gift of Organ Donation Taught Me Death Is Not the last Word, America, April 21, 2017
This story affirms that, at our best, we are the living presence of God to everyone we encounter. Made in the image of God, we are meant to imitate the love, compassion and mercy of that God who loved us into life. Today’s first reading from Exodus spells out in practical detail what that means: “You must not molest the stranger nor oppress him. Remember, you yourselves lived as strangers in Egypt. You must not be harsh with the widow, or with the orphan; if you are harsh with them, they will surely cry out to me, and be sure I shall hear their cry” (Exodus 22, 20-22). The manner in which we treat others, especially the most vulnerable, is meant to reflect the way in which God has dealt with us.
In today’s second reading from Thessalonians, Paul applauds that particular community for the manner in which they had reflected the compassion of God in the generosity and hospitality they had extended to Paul, himself, and his companions. He affirms them for the impact their community had on others: “The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore. – you’re the message! People come up and tell us how you received us with open arms” (1 Thessalonians 1, 5-10).
In considering today’s gospel-reading, it is important that, yet again, we remind ourselves of context. In Matthew’s eyes this is another of the confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem, during the final week of his life. In a sense, we can call this particular confrontation Jesus’ final examination, for, in the minds of those challenging him, it seals his fate. As experts in Jewish law, they had analysed the Torah and concluded that it contained 613 specific commandments. In responding to them, Jesus pointed out that the two pillars on which the other 611 commandments were based were love of God and love of neighbour. While Jesus connected two commandments from the Torah – love of God (Deuteronomy 6, 5) and love of neighbour (Leviticus 19, 18). – what he did was apparently interpreted as an over-simplification by those interrogating him.
Perhaps, we too, have underestimated the complexity of what he said. While love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable, they are not one and the same. Loving God is not the same as loving one’s neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbour may sometimes be more easily done than loving God, for no other reason than that we can actually see and touch our neighbour. And perhaps, our neighbour puts fewer demands on us. On the other hand, there are some Christians who argue that love of neighbour is actually worship. They use that argument to justify their absenting themselves from participation in formal church worship. But isn’t worship the foremost expression of our love for God?
The logical conclusion of expressing our love for God through worship is love of neighbour. The very foundation of love of neighbour is that, as God’s beloved people, we are called to love everyone and everything that God loves passionately. I suggest that the reason why Jesus was able to say that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable is not based on a view that God and neighbour are alike, but on the very nature of love itself. To love both God and neighbour, we have to move beyond self to grasp that love is bigger than ourselves, that there is something universal about it. The authenticity of our ability to love in this way is demonstrated in the particular relationships and encounters in which we engage. It is one thing to say we love humanity, but quite another thing to actually love those with whom we rub shoulders every day.
On a practical level, we have all met people who have said to us: “I’m a decent person, I try to be kind to everyone I meet, I believe in God, but I don’t feel that going to church is necessary. Loving is what it’s all about.” I suggest that’s missing the deeper message of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel-reading. It’s true that many of us have seen and even experienced examples of loveless law. But, it’s also possible to slip into lawless love, forgetting the need to pray, to delve into the Scriptures, to actively roll up our sleeves and demonstrate against injustice and intolerance. I am reminded of the psychologist Erik Erickson. Back in 1969 he published a book on the great Indian leader Gandhi. The book is entitled Gandhi’s Truth: The Origins of Militant Nonviolence. Erickson discovered that Gandhi, great man that he was, invited many untouchables to be guests in his house. However, he insisted that their bodily wastes be removed by his wife. We will all experience tension between love and law, and have leanings one way or the other. But grace still exists, and even finds its way into our lives.