There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" He said in reply, 'You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."I was struck, first of all, by the order of God's commandment. Love God first, with all your soul, being, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. As a child, I struggled with understanding why God would ask first that we love Him, when there are so many people in need in the world. Surely, as many agnostics and atheists claim, the service of others is the highest form of giving, the most noble exercise of our human faculties. And the parable of the Good Samaritan seems to underscore this. Isn't the point that if I'm on my way to church and happen across an accident, I should skip Mass and tend to the victims of the crash? Or if I have limited funds, aren't they better spent feeding the homeless than contributing to the fund my opulent Catholic cathedral has set up to clean and maintain its mosaics?
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.' Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."Luke, 10 25-37
Well, yes. And no.
Now that I have children of my own, I understand a bit more the love God has for us, and His desire that we form a relationship with Him. I think about how I would feel if my son grew up, became a priest and went to Kenya, but we were estranged. He would be doing exactly what I want, living according to the values I'm trying to instill in him, and serving the world in the way I most desire. Yet how can it make me happy for him to do all this and shut me entirely out of his life? I would be proud of him, of course, and very, very happy if he found fulfillment in his vocation. But it would be an empty sort of feeling because I couldn't share in it with him.
God must feel the same way when we put anything else before our relationship with him. Yes, we are called to both love God and serve one another, but first and foremost we must love God. We have to be sure that the rituals and requirements of our faith don't prevent us from doing God's will. That's the point of the parable, where the Levite and priest allowed the strict regulations governing ritual washing to keep them from tending to the man in need. But that doesn't mean we're meant to disregard our obligation to put God first. So yes, if I'm on my way to Mass and see an accident, I should stop and help. And then I should give up my lunch, or my football game, so I can attend a later Mass. If my cathedral, which is the house of God, is in need of repair, then I should forgo buying a new coffee table to help repair it. Then I will have money both for God's house and for the homeless.
The second part of Jesus' commandment resonates with me the most powerfully: love your neighbor as yourself. Every time I think about that, I'm amazed again by the level of love God's asking of us. Not just be nice to people, or refrain from hurting them, but LOVE them. Love them in the same way you love yourself.
I love myself pretty darn much, gotta tell you. I buy myself things for no other reason than just to make me happy. I'm concerned with my health, I surround myself with friends and comfort and beauty. I make sure to give myself as much sleep as I need (though my kids sometimes thwart this effort.) I take myself on vacations to the mountains and drink wine at every opportunity. I foster my relationship with God often throughout the day. This is how much I'm supposed to love others. I'm supposed to be as consumed with their health, comfort, salvation and happiness as I am with my own. That's a really, really big love God asks of us.
Finally, I'm always humbled by the fact that even though the scholar knew the law extremely well (so well as to encapsulate it in one perfect, brief, commandment) he had no idea what the law was really about. Jesus told him all he had to do was to act in accordance with his beliefs "Go and do this and you will live." and immediately he "seeks to justify himself." In other words, to find a loophole or exemption that wouldn't require him to actually change his lifestyle or interactions.
I identify so strongly with him. Aren't I sitting here, asking God for guidance, and then making excuses whenever He prompts me?
God is always calling us to better ourselves, to sacrifice more, pray more, serve more. What are the excuses we're making? I've been meaning for weeks now to make a trip to my local nursing home and see if they need volunteers. And what's been running through my mind? I don't know where a nursing home is (as though I couldn't look in the book and find one.) I don't want to take my 4-year old until he learns how to behave better (as though I couldn't go when he's at Montessori.) I don't want my daughter to catch an illness (as though the elderly have more germs than the kids in the cry room at Mass!) Isn't there always an excuse not to do something? Isn't there always a way we can justify our inaction or our sins?
Nike doesn't have a bad answer to this: Just do it.