On a Journey: Siena to Vienna
(Ex.22:20-26; 1Thess.1:5c-10; Mt.22:34-40)
I’m ashamed to say it, but some years ago in Siena, Italy, I was walking down a quiet street one evening when a homeless man approached me. ‘Sir, can you help me? I’m hungry and have nowhere to stay.’
I looked at him reluctantly. He was a refugee. ‘Even 5 Euros would help,’ he said.
To my eternal regret, I turned and walked away. At the time I thought it was wrong to encourage begging. But he was desperate. ‘Please don’t walk away!’ he cried. ‘Please help me!’ But I kept on walking.
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ Jesus says.
There are 613 commandments in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah). [i] In ancient times, rabbis spent considerable time debating these laws and their relative importance.
In Matthew’s Gospel today, they ask Jesus: ‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?’
In his famous reply, Jesus says that the greatest and first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Deut.6:5). Then he says that the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev.19:18). And then he adds: ‘On these two commandments hang the whole law and the prophets also’.
What Jesus is saying is that the meaning of all these 613 laws, and all the teachings of the prophets, can be summarized by these two verses.
Essentially, our Christian faith is all about loving God to the very best of our ability. But this requires us to love both God and our neighbour, with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds.
Why? It’s because Jesus is both human and divine. It’s not possible to love Jesus who is God, without also loving our neighbour who he created and even died for (Mt.25:40).
We fulfil our love for God by loving our neighbour, and this requires us to embrace the world around us with an open and loving heart.
There was once an old man who was sitting on a bench at the edge of town when a stranger approached. ‘What are the people in this town like?’ the stranger asked.
‘What were they like in the last town?’ the old man replied.
‘They were kind and generous. They would do anything to help you if you were in trouble,’ came the reply.
‘Well, I think you’ll find them much the same in this town,’ said the old man.
Sometime later, a second stranger approached the old man and asked the same question: ‘What are the people like in this town?’
The old man replied, ‘What were they like in the town you’ve just come from?’
‘It was a terrible place,’ he answered, ‘To tell you the truth, I was glad to leave. The people there were cruel and mean. They wouldn’t lift a finger to help you if you were in trouble.’
‘I’m afraid,’ said the old man, ‘you’ll find them much the same in this town,’ [ii]
The love we are called to extend to others is much more than just being nice, friendly and affectionate. These things are good, but we can do them without love.
Real love is willing the good of the other. It’s wanting what’s best for them and then doing something about it. It’s not about saying the right words; rather, it’s about taking concrete action to make meaningful things happen (1Jn.3:16-18).
Loving God and loving our neighbour, then, aren’t parallel commandments. They are two sides of the same coin. We cannot say we love God while ignoring our suffering neighbour (1Jn.4:20), and it’s clearly not sufficient to love our neighbour while turning our backs on God.
As an old Persian proverb puts it:
- I sought my God, my God I could not see.
- I sought my soul, my soul eluded me.
- I sought my neighbour, and I found all three. [iii]
One day during a more recent visit to Vienna, I noticed a homeless man begging on the footpath outside our accommodation. It was evening, and I’d decided to take a stroll, searching for a nice dinner for my wife and me to eat. The beggar said nothing as I passed, but I knew he was hungry.
I bought three good meals and carried them back to the apartment. With a genuinely humbled heart, I gave one to the hungry man. He looked at me in surprise.
You shall love your neighbour as
[ii] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies Year A, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2019:349.
[iii] William Bausch, Once Upon a Gospel. Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT. 2011:305.