Go and Do Likewise
Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Bruno Clifton preaches on love of neighbour.
‘You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt.’ (Exod 22:21).
Over these past few weeks, we have been faced with the horrors of yet more war in the Middle East. Along with the usual weary discussion about the causes of such a conflict, regular descriptions of the atrocities perpetuated against the bystander strikes a deeper, foreboding chord. How can human beings do such things to fellow human beings? Indeed, faced with the disasters in Israel and Gaza, Philippe Lazzarini of the UN relief agency recently concluded that ‘the world is now losing its humanity’.
But does each side regard the other as part of a shared humanity?
Denying another their humanity is a tried and tested tactic in empire-building to psychologically enable the committing of brutalities against another person. If the oppressed do not deserve to be considered people, any action appears justified.
In this way, considering the greatest commandment to love your neighbour as yourself (Matt 22:37-39), provokes a further question.
‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29).
In Luke’s discussion of the greatest commandment this is indeed the question that the lawyer asks. And in the parable of the Good Samaritan that serves as his answer, Jesus chooses the most evidently non-neighbour, the Samaritans, to expose the particularly human tendency to exclude some people from sharing in the same humanity.
Now, human beings have always created insider and outsider groups; have always distinguished between us and them. At root this is a subsistence method. In pursuit of socio-economic survival, an age-old policy is a default suspicion of those who are not your family, culture or people.
Yet, an effect of this suspicion is a relativization of morality, where the obligation for honourable behaviour is limited to the neighbour and identifying the neighbour is limited to those of the same culture and religion. Anyone else is, by default, the object of mistrust and an enemy until proven otherwise.
‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy…’’ (Matt 5:43)
Interestingly, Jesus adds the second phrase— ‘hate your enemy’ —to his recitation of the law from Leviticus 19:18. This is possibly a traditional combination of the commandment with the one in Deuteronomy 23:3, but this addition indicates how the law to love neighbour as yourself was received in this limited way. Love neighbours, yes. But no one is obliged to treat an enemy justly…
‘…but I say to you, love your enemies…’ (Matt 5:44).
Jesus challenges the limited perspective on who is a neighbour. ‘The one who showed mercy to him’ (Luke 10:37) is the response that Jesus draws from the lawyer after the story of the Good Samaritan. Not the one who is like me, part of my group, but the one who behaved as a neighbour and regarded the unknown victim of brigands as a neighbour (Luke 10:30).
Is this behind the lawyer’s question in Matthew’s Gospel too (Matt 22:36)? Not simply what is the greatest commandment, but who deserves to be the object of love?
The issue of the greatest commandment is a longstanding discussion for those whose lifelong task is to study the Law, and the law of love has often been used as a summary of the entire Torah.
Challenged in the same way as Jesus, the Rabbi Hillel responded ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law. The rest is commentary’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
Yet Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ standard question moves beyond the typical to the efficacious. In his loving actions to die for all humanity, Jesus not only identifies the greatest commandment, but he also obeys it. And thus, enables us all to follow his command to the lawyer who learnt about the unlimited love of the Good Samaritan: ‘go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:37).
Image: graffiti on a wall in Jerusalem reading ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, from Wikimedia Commons