Fr Senan Furlong OSB
When Jesus was twelve years old, his parents thinking that he was lost went in search of him. They found him in the temple in Jerusalem sitting among the teachers of the Law, listening and asking them questions. I like to imagine, improbable though it is, that one of those teachers was Hillel the great. There is a famous story that a would-be convert approached this wise Rabbi and demanded of him: “Teach me the whole Torah (the Divine Law) while I stand on one foot!” Hillel answered: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to another. That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” Basing the whole Law on one principle, like standing on one foot, Hillel tells the man to go and learn what this principle—the golden rule—requires.
After all, God is in the details. Today’s first reading from the book of Exodus gives a few examples of those details: don’t oppress the stranger, don’t be harsh with the widow or orphan, don’t exploit those in debt or take advantage of someone who has fallen on bad times. For just as God listens to all who cry out to him and is compassionate, so must we, his people, do likewise. The details bring the divine presence down to earth, where we need it most, inviting us to live life as God wishes us to do.
“What is the greatest commandment of the Law?” the Pharisees challenge Jesus in today’s gospel. Jesus replies by quoting the familiar commandment from the book of Deuteronomy: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your strength”, or as Matthew puts it, with all your heart, soul and mind. But Jesus does not stop at loving God and sets a second commandment taken from the book of Leviticus beside the first: “love your neighbour as yourself.” Fulfilment of the Law flows from love of God and love of neighbour.
We must stand on these two feet. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But not all neighbours are lovable. There are neighbours we may dislike, even deeply. Our neighbour may have harmed us and acted in a
way we believe is wrong. If we were angels, it would be easy to love our neighbour. But we are not. For this reason the command in Leviticus is very practical. It sums up a paragraph about dealing fairly and honestly, about talking things through and admonishing, about not taking revenge or bearing a grudge. In effect, it commands us to give our neighbour the consideration we would like to receive in their situation; to give our neighbour’s interests and rights the respect we give our own.
At heart, the command implies, Love your neighbour—who is just like yourself. In other words, my neighbour is profoundly connected with me, and this connection is rooted in the fact that both of us has been created in the image and likeness of God. We share an identity, no
matter how different we may be. In a world that is increasingly divided and polarised, when it becomes difficult to see the person behind the label, it is so easy to get outraged and swept up in hated. Hatred is familiar and easy but it is as destructive of ourselves as of those we hate. What is hateful to you, Hillel reminds us, don’t do to another.
We may be a handful of dust but we are made in the image of God and have been blessed with the gifts of intellect and creativity, empathy and perception. In today’s gospel Jesus invites us to put these gifts to use as we strive to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and all our mind, and then love our neighbour as ourselves. Stand on these two feet, for as Jesus says, on these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.