by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Matthew 22, 40
Every now and then, many of us, in a fit of fervour, post reminder notes for ourselves on the fridge, on the bathroom mirror or on our office notice board: “Buy sugar-free cereal”, “Remember to exercise with…on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6.00 am”. At other times we make mental notes: “Make sure to be patient with grandpa, especially if he gets onto his usual hobby-horse!”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus quotes from a reminder written on the hearts and minds of every Jewish woman, man and child. It’s called the Shema, from the Hebrew word for “hear” or “take notice”, and it is found in the Book of Deuteronomy. It calls all people to love the Lord with every ounce of their being, their energy and their talent: “Attention, Israel! GOD, our God! GOD, the one and only! Love GOD, your God, with your whole heart: love God with all that’s in you, love God with all you’ve got! Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates” (Deuteronomy 6, 4-6). And that’s what they did and still do.
We probably like to think that we need no reminder to love God. However, even a moment’s reflection is sufficient to demonstrate to me that I can easily get so involved in the business of the day that God get’s forgotten, unless, of course, I build into each day times for reflection and prayer. I suspect that’s how life is for most of us. The Jewish people had come to that realisation well before the time of Jesus, and they came up with the Shema as a way of reminding themselves that God was central to their lives. We know from our Muslim friends that they pause for prayer five times a day, while the women and men who belong to Monastic Orders pause 8 times a day to pray the hours of the Divine Office. If we are in the habit of taking time at night to reflect on where we might have encountered God in the course of each day, we might discover just how little time we actually give to our relationship with the God who loved us into life.
In the gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that our responsibility as children of God is a dual one, that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparably linked. We cannot claim to love God if we ignore those around us or show them no respect. But there’s a catch in the second part of that dual responsibility – we are told: “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
If you’re like me, I’m sure there have been times in your life when you were not actually pleased with yourself; times when you felt ashamed of what you had said or done. Some of us get trapped into our past and begin to think that nobody, not even God, loves us. And being told that God doesn’t make rubbish is not enough to shake us out of our self-loathing, which can often descend into self-pity. But God really does love us endlessly, despite our failures and frailty. Probably even because of them! That’s really one of the messages of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
I suggest that there is another way to look at the responsibility to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”. Look, for instance, at today’s first reading from Exodus. It itemises some of the especially nasty ways in which some people treat others: victimising foreigners, swindling widows, making money out of orphans, charging poor people high rates of interest on loans, forcing people to provide collateral on loans with what they need to stay alive. This reading invites us to imagine how we would feel if the banks, the government and our next-door neighbours did things like that to us. It is as though we are being asked to learn how to be compassionate by reflecting on how we would cope if those things were done to us. There are times when we respond with hostility if we sense that someone is prejudiced against us or is downright disrespectful or treats us as dirt. We respond angrily. The Exodus reading invites us to imagine how we would feel in those circumstances and then ask ourselves if others might feel that way too. Everyone I know hurts the way I hurt, fears the way I fear, and needs to be loved as much as I do.
And that’s where the two great commandments to which Jesus refers come together. When we think about it, it’s really only when we come to realise deep down that God does actually love us that we are then free enough to treat those around us with kindness, care and compassion. Becoming convinced that we are really dear to God is the challenge of a lifetime. So, a reminder to ourselves that we are dear to God might be something worth sticking onto the fridge or the mirror in our bedroom.
Let me conclude with a story I’m sure I’ve shared before, but is well worth repeating. I have borrowed it from Anne Lamott’s book: Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life (Pantheon Books, New York, 1994, p. 205):
The little sister of an eight-year-old boy was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. The doctors explained that the little girl needed a blood transfusion from someone whose blood matched hers. They suggested that one of her siblings might well be a compatible donor. The parents explained to their son that his blood might do the trick, and asked if he would be prepared to have the doctors test his blood. He agreed, and the results were positive. Then the doctor told the boy that the only chance his sister had to remain alive was that if he were prepared to give her a pint of his blood. He asked the doctor if he could think about it overnight.
This he did, and the next day he told his parents that he would donate his blood to his little sister. So off they went to the hospital where the boy was put on a bed next to his sister. A needle was inserted into the boy’s arm and a pint of his blood was collected in about 40 minutes. The blood was then hooked up to an IV system that allowed it to drip slowly through another tube attached to his sister. The boy lay on his bed totally silent, watching his blood drip down the tube and into his sister’s body.
The doctor supervising the process eventually came over to the boy and asked him how he was doing. The boy turned and asked: “How long now before I start to die?”