In this Sunday's gospel the scribes who exercised leadership in the Jewish community with their interpretations of the law found their authority being threatened by Jesus and therefore wanted Him to take a position on their discussions about what is the most important law in their scriptures. They figured that no matter what answer He gave He would lose some of His followers. They had identified 613 laws in their holy books and they debated which was the greatest law. To put it in other words: what made a Jew a “good Jew”? There were different schools of thought on this and they wanted Jesus to choose one of them.
But Jesus refused to enter into their controversies. Instead he went back to the basic commandments in their scriptures: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Many other Pharisees and scribes at that time would have given the same answer, and that is why they saw the wisdom of his response.
At the Parliament of Religions in 2009 I attended a session given by four rabbis on the future of the Jewish religion. I was very impressed with what they said and I thought: if Jesus was here listening to them He would have been so proud to be a Jew. In the question and answer period one young man said he had been brought up as a Jew, but when people asked him what does it mean to be a Jew he didn’t know what to answer. He went on: I have four rabbis in front of me; can you tell me in one sentence: what does it mean to be a Jew? One rabbi got up immediately and went to the microphone and said: That’s easy – love your neighbour as yourself – that is what it means to be a good Jew.
As a young priest I can remember getting into arguments, especially with my nephews and nieces and other young people, about what it means to be a “good Catholic”? Their answers would vary: “go to Mass every Sunday”; “do not have sex before marriage”; “send your children to a Catholic School”: “be concerned about social justice issues”; and, “love the environment”. It was fun discussing these things with them but I am not sure we ever came to an agreement or that our discussions brought any of them to a closer encounter with God.
Then in 1964 I was persuaded by some parishioners in Baltimore to make a Cursillo de Christianidad. After six years of studying philosophy and theology I didn’t expect to learn anything new. But I was in for a surprise! It was a live-in weekend exercise. The participants were of various colours and ethnic backgrounds. Some were university professors or business leaders and others were construction workers or tradesmen. There were talks given followed by discussions at the table to which we were assigned. At the table we were a motley group of men bringing our backgrounds with us. But we had only our first name on our badges with no titles. Also we were told that in our discussions we were not to spend time introducing ourselves or giving our background. The only thing we all had to know was that there was one thing we all had in common – our faith in Jesus and our desire to follow his teachings. We were all equally one in Christ. This was the basis of our trust in one another
That woke me up and made me start to listen more carefully to what each one had to say. All I had to know about them was that they were my brothers in Christ and that they loved God as much as I did. As they talked about their understanding of their faith and experiences with God I realized that almost all of them had a deep Catholic faith and had had a deep personal encounter with a loving God. I needed to learn so much more about what that meant.
Before we closed the retreat we had a final session on what it means to love our neighbours as ourselves. Once more I had to listen to learn from them because their experiences and stories were so different from my “pious” ones. “Loving our neighbours”, they told me, was not an add-on to what it means to be a “good Catholic”. It was at the core of who we were as Catholics.
They were all agreeing with Jesus: we must love God and love our neighbours.