Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Commentators on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) amplified it into many hundreds of prescriptions; but there was an equal quest to simplify it into one, to express the essence underlying its multiplicity. This was the import of the Pharisee’s question. It was a regular question to put to a rabbi.
Jesus replied by quoting the ‘Shema Israel’, which is practically the Creed of Judaism. It was recited at Saturday evening prayers, and written on small pieces of parchment carried in phylacteries. The words mean ‘Hear, O Israel’, from the opening words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). But he added another to it, from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” This was not quite an innovation in itself, but when you recall who he meant by ‘neighbour’, it certainly was. The common understanding of ‘neighbour’ was other Jews. In the time the Jesus, the most pious sect, the Qumran community, altered the definition a little: “You shall love all the children of light, and hate all the children of darkness.” But in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made it clear that one’s neighbour is anyone in need, no matter what their race or religion. ‘Neighbour’, then, is an unlimited category in the teaching of Jesus, and as if to underline this from the beginning, the perfect model of this new liberating morality was a Samaritan. Samaritans were regarded by Jews as heretics and foreigners, in no way “children of the light.”
The combination of the two commandments to love God and neighbour was not lost on Jesus’ disciples. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20). But there are better examples in the New Testament of the universality of ‘neighbour’ (John tended to think only in terms of the community of disciples). Jesus’ teaching was that we must love even our enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:43-45).
“Love your neighbour as yourself,” Jesus quoted. But when he spoke from himself he said “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). There is all the difference in the world between these two. I would run a mile from some people if they threatened to love me as they loved themselves! The so-called Golden Rule guarantees very little. Jesus not only tells us to love God and neighbour; by his life and death he shows us how to do it.