Whenever people look for guidance laws are sure to follow. We start with general responsibilities like the Ten Commandments and then these general norms give birth to thousands of detailed behaviors. Regulations start to multiply on everything how to pray, how to bless food, what ritual to employ when visiting the sick, and so on. Surely we Catholics are no stranger to this phenomenon. “Was the law meticulously and literally followed? Was the right thing done?” If it was, then that is enough. God is content. Doing the law is what counts. This is the vantage point of the Pharisees and Sadducees in numerous exchanges with Jesus. But Jesus in Matthew 22:34-40 says it’s not only what we do that counts but from where we do it; our inner intention. Jesus synthesizes all 613 Jewish commandments into just two – and they are about love.
When Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’; but I say to you, love your enemies.’” For 1st century Jews, the effect would have been the same as if a preacher were to stand up today and say, ‘The Bible says … but I say to you ….’” (Zahnd) Can you imagine the fall out of that statement in most Christian circles today? Yeah…Jesus was THAT guy.
Jesus says all our laws stem from our loving relationship with God and with our neighbor.We are to love God with all our hearts and all our souls, and all our strength and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Exclusive emphasis on the action does not give the proper attention to the spirit in which the action is done. Jesus is concerned with the inner state of the acting person. Mindless compliance with the dictates of multiple laws make one a robot, or a child – conforming but not understanding.
When the law reads “you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind on “the law abiding person refrains from putting obstacles in front of sightless people but when love of God and love of neighbor are at center and inform our conscience we know that this law means not to take advantage of anyone’s vulnerability or weakness. We recognize the full spirit of the law and its wide application knowing its ultimate purpose; to make us a loving people. So we know when to heed the laws, when to modify them and went to dismiss them – just as Jesus healed people against very explicit Sabbath commandments among his many other violations of the law.
It is important to note that Jesus never speaks of our love of God separate from our love of neighbor. It is impossible to say we love God if we are not also showing love and care to our neighbors. Jesus in essence makes these two commandments one and another gospels they are presented as just one unified commandment. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked “Who is my neighbor?” and he responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan suggesting that anyone in need that crosses our path we must love as we would love God. Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25 states that the criteria for entrance into heaven will be determined by whoever loved God in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, and the prisoner. We do not get to choose the neighbor we are to love – they choose us through their need. And if we ignore our neighbor in need we ignore God.
So what does it mean to love? Jesus surely is not talking about romantic love and doesn’t mean liking people a whole lot. We are not to idealized the poor and we don’t have to be their best friends. Rather, loving our neighbor (who we might know personally or not) means to not knowingly wrong or oppressed anyone. One example, our Bible, like the Quran for our Muslim neighbors, forbids lending money to the poor and demanding interest. So to love our neighbor means we must be fair to others and we cannot exploit the disproportionate power and wealth that we have been given.
But our tradition says that love compels us to do even more than simply play fair. Jesus doesn’t spurn the law but he DOES significantly raise the bar. He says the whole law flows from our love of God and neighbor. So instead of just asking ourselves “what does our religious tradition and history tell us is right to do?” we are challenged to ask ourselves “what is the loving thing to do?” which is always the harder of the two. Jesus bids us to make our entire lives an act of love.
What does this love concretely look like though? If we were given one small stick and asked to break it, we could easily snap it in half, but if we were asked to break many sticks gather tightly in a bundle they couldn’t be broken. We love our neighbor by binding ourselves with them so closely that no one will be broken. John Paul II called this solidarity and it is a central principle of our Catholic social ethics. Our Bishops state “Catholic social teaching states that we are our brothers and sisters keepers wherever they live. We are one human family. Practicing the virtue of solidarity means learning that loving our neighbor has global dimensions in an interdependent world. As followers of Jesus we are to bind ourselves together with the poor – those without a voice in our society in a commitment to the common good of all people not the narrow interests that benefit only a few. We are designed for this life-giving connectedness. If we are looking for genuine joy, solidarity is the most solid route to the “fullness of life” promised to us by God.