The gentle sound of a Salvation Army volunteer’s bell at the market door, the stack of non-perishable food items left each Sunday morning in a church vestibule, the collation after a funeral Mass provided by fellow parishioners for a mourning family, the faithful patience of the religious education teacher for a special needs student — these charitable activities make real the basic premise of the Judeo-Christian tradition that an authentic love of God must mature into a functional love of neighbor. The book of Exodus could not be more practical when it insists: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in?” The book of Leviticus offers a worthy and memorable summary, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the Christian Scriptures, such diverse authors as St. Paul, St. James and St. John all concur on the centrality of everyday charity. St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” St. James memorably summarizes the Christian life when he flatly advises, “Religion pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their tribulation and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The usually exalted words of St. John come solidly down to earth when he writes, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”
The Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — all report with clear accord Jesus’ own statement on the heart of the Judeo-Christian message. This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Matthew proclaims, “…a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him,”You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
St. Luke teaches the same message but reverses the dialogue: “There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
The usually terse St. Mark relates the same dialogue in greater detail: “One of the scribes asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
Pay especially close attention to the final line from St. Mark’s narrative above: “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.” In the Gospel accounts of Ss. Matthew and Luke, the authorities definitely do continue to ask Jesus more questions, but St. Mark takes the liberty of making Jesus’ final public pronouncement be the discussion of the love of God and neighbor. After these words, there is no more to report. Faith and charity, prayer and good works, heaven and earth, God and mankind cannot be separated.
The wisdom of Moses and the prophets agrees with the preaching of Jesus and the apostles. The total person — heart, soul and mind — must be open both to God’s Will and to a neighbor’s need. Christians need worship on Sunday but they also need compassion on Monday. Christians should genuflect before God but they should also open their hands to the needy. Such is the “whole law and the prophets.”