“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In today’s Gospel reading, a scholar of the law tries to trip Jesus up by asking him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” A tricky question. Why? Because the law contained not just what we call the 10 Commandments, but 613 commandments — 248 do’s and 365 don’t’s.
Jesus answers the question, first of all, by reciting part of the daily Jewish prayer called the “Shema.” (In Hebrew, the word “Shema” means “Hear!”) It is called the “Shema” prayer because “Shema” is the first word in the Old Testament passage – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 – which begins: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Here Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Then, after quoting the “Shema” prayer as the “first and greatest commandment,” Jesus immediately goes beyond the question he was asked by quoting what he called “the second” greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – which he says “is like the first,” and which comes from another book of the law: Leviticus 19:18. Finally, Jesus concludes his answer by saying, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
What could be simpler? What could be more obvious? I doubt that any good Jews at the time would have disagreed with Jesus. And now, every Christian knows about Jesus’ answer which makes it clear that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. We can’t really love God without loving our neighbor.
Here we must understand that our “neighbor” whom Jesus tells us that we must love as ourselves, cannot be interpreted in a strictly literal, narrowly restrictive sense. The parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ own example will not allow us to define our “neighbor” just as the person who lives next door to us. Our “neighbor” is every human being whom we have ever met – and every man, woman and child with whom we will ever contact for the rest of our lives. And, perhaps even more importantly, and certainly more challenging, our neighbor is every human being whom we will never meet – including those men, women and children whom we might well prefer never to meet. Those undesirable people whom sociologists classify as “marginalized” and whom poets might describe as the “dregs of society.” These are among the neighbors whom Jesus tells us to love as ourselves.
May the Lord Jesus truly help all of us to obey this second great commandment.