On Two Feet and Two Wings
(Deut.6:2-6; Heb.7:23-28; Mk.12:28-34)
People are often surprised to hear that there are 613 commandments in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah). They usually only expect ten commandments.
Long before Jesus was born, Jewish rabbis began arguing about all these laws and their meanings. They also often debated which was the most important commandment of all.
This is the question a scribe puts to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel today. Jesus replies by picking two commandments. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:5: you must love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is from Leviticus 19:18: you must love your neighbour as yourself. ‘There’s no commandment greater than these,’ Jesus says.
Now, why does Jesus mention two commandments, instead of simply saying we should love God above all else? It’s because loving God and loving our neighbour are two sides of the same coin (1Jn.4:7-8).
St Basil the Great used to say that we can only love our fellow human beings because we love God first. If we don’t love God, he said, we will never be open to enemies and strangers. And the only way we can fully express our love for God is by loving our neighbours who have been created in his image and likeness.
St Catherine of Siena talks about this in her famous Dialogues. One day Our Lord said to her, ‘I want you to love me with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved in return … This is why I’ve put you among your neighbours: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me – that is, to love them without expecting any reward. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me’ (Mt.25:40).
‘When you love me and your neighbour,’ Our Lord told her, ‘you’ll be walking with two feet, not one, and you’ll have two wings to fly to heaven.’ [i]
But who is my neighbour? Henri Nouwen says that we often answer that question by saying: ‘My neighbours are all the people I’m living with, especially the sick, the hungry, the dying, and all who are in need.
‘But that’s not what Jesus says. When Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (Lk.10:29-37) … he ends by asking: “Which do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?”
‘The neighbour, Jesus makes clear, isn’t the poor man lying half dead on the side of the road, but the Samaritan who crossed the road to look after him.’ [ii]
Our neighbour, then, can be anyone at all, anywhere and anytime.
St Teresa of Calcutta made this clear in the story she told of a hungry Hindu family: ‘A gentleman came to our house and said: Mother Teresa, there’s a family with eight children, they haven’t eaten for so long – do something.
‘So, I took some rice and went there immediately. And I saw the children – their eyes shining with hunger … (The mother) took the rice, divided it and went out. When she came back, I asked her – where did you go, what did you do? And she gave me a very simple answer: They are hungry also.’
That Hindu family was starving, but so was another Muslim family. The hungry mother had shared her rice with them.
Mother Teresa said, ‘I didn’t bring any more rice that evening because I wanted them to enjoy the joy of sharing. But there were those children, radiating joy, sharing the joy with their mother because she had the love to give. And you see this is where love begins – at home.’ [iii]
So, how might we ourselves begin?
In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis says: ‘Don’t waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this,’ he says, ‘we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will soon come to love them.’ [iv]
The great theologian Karl Rahner once said something similar. A student who was going through a crisis of faith asked him for some books to read to regain his faith.
‘Forget books,’ Rahner said, ‘go out and join a group of Christians who help the poor.’
What all these good people are talking about is a pure and selfless love; a love that expects nothing in return. This is the kind of love God gives us, and the love God wants us to give our neighbour.
A pure and selfless love that expects nothing in return.
When you love both God and your neighbour, you’ll be walking
with two feet, not one, and you’ll have two wings to fly to heaven.
[i] St Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, Paulist Press, Mahweh, N.J. 1980
[iv] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Fontana Books, London, 1969:114