Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
One of the scribes came near and heard the disciples disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself,’ – this is much more important that all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
This was a remarkably friendly exchange between Jesus and the scribe, and it stands in strong contrast with the two exchanges just before it in Mark’s gospel. They pay each other handsome compliments. Perhaps this was put there to show that Jesus’ teaching is not necessarily in conflict with the best of what was before. In other words, a bridge between the two is possible.
How important it is to construct bridges! A bridge is the other side made attainable; it enables you to hope. It was St Catherine of Siena’s favourite image; she pictured Christ as a bridge. In her Dialogue, the Father says to her, “I made a bridge of my Son as he lived in your company. And though that living bridge has been taken from your sight, there remains the bridgeway of his teaching, which… is held together by my power and my Son’s wisdom and the mercy of the Holy Spirit.”
A bridge is a connection. It is all too easy to make disconnections: it is the easiest thing for the mind to do. A disconnection is a negative, and many live naturally in negativity; they are people who cannot invest themselves in anything. But bridges! Let’s make bridges today!
The scribe asked Jesus to mention one law, but he mentioned two. This was the clearest way of saying that they cannot be separated. There is a bridge between the two. There is no real love of God without love of neighbour, and no deep or lasting love of neighbour without love of God. (But many love God unawares.) If these two cannot be separated, they are really only one in practice – like two hands. In Irish a person who has lost one hand is said to be ar leath-lámh, “on half a hand.” Try playing, say, the violin with only one hand. You might as well have only half a hand.
In fact the Jews had already made this connection. Strict orthodox Jews wore little leather sachets (phylacteries) around their wrists, containing verses from Scripture. They still do, when they are at prayer. One of these verses was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13). To which the scribes added, “You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). In other words, in today’s gospel reading Jesus gave the scribes’ answer.
In Luke’s version of the incident, there is a further question; and it was a common one: “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). Some Rabbis (definitely not bridge-builders) restricted it to fellow Jews; others gave a somewhat wider definition. Luke was not Jewish himself and was writing for non-Jews; perhaps this is why he alone includes this question. In Luke’s handling of it, Jesus turned the question inside out. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan (also a non-Jewish figure). He did not answer the question, Who is my neighbour? but a different question, Whom should I be neighbour to? This is highly significant. The first question is about other people and how they are to be classified; the second question is about myself and how I should behave towards other people.
The mind is quite happy to look out at the world from an undisturbed position. “In its blind inertia,” wrote St Augustine in the 5th century, “it loves to lie concealed, yet it wishes that nothing should be concealed from it.” The consequence, he said, is that the tables are turned: you will not be able to hide yourself from the truth, but the truth will be hidden from you. It is very hard to bring the truth home to oneself.
That is the ultimate bridge: the one between myself and the rest of the world. If I don’t allow such a bridge or if I am not constantly crossing it, while I may know a lot about religion, I am not a religious person.