According to a well-known motto, religion and politics should never be discussed at the dinner table, especially with guests present. After all, don’t religion and politics ignite opinions that are divisive, upsetting, even hurtful? You may be familiar with another motto: religion and politics don’t mix. They need to be kept separate, we’re often told, because the one invariably corrupts the other.
Today’s Gospel turns these two mottos upside down. Jesus may not have been having a dinner party with his detractors, the Pharisees, but he certainly engaged them in an intense conversation involving both religion and politics. One Pharisee tried to back him into a corner with a question about the Torah, and then Jesus fired back with his own question about how the Pharisees read Scripture. And in the course of the exchange, he makes some remarkable claims.
When that hot-shot Pharisee lawyer asks Jesus to name the greatest commandment of the Torah, Jesus’ response is initially not very controversial. He says that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. In other words, one’s entire life—everything that defines and shapes the human experience—should be oriented to God. For many people, this is what religion is all about. Religion, as commonly understood, is fundamentally about a cultivation of disciplines that allow belief in God to deepen and flourish. But Jesus doesn’t leave things at that.
Loving God, according to Jesus, is the first and greatest commandment, but there is a second commandment that Jesus says is “like” the first. It’s the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. Loving your neighbour is about a kind of life together. How should humans engage one another and relate to each other? This is the basic question of politics. And Jesus says that the foundation of politics is love—love for our each and every neighbour. It’s important to note that “neighbour” does not necessarily refer to the one who lives next door to you, with whom you’re on good terms. The lesson of the Good Samaritan parable is that a “neighbour” can be a stranger, even one who would otherwise be considered an outcast. Loving our neighbours as ourselves is about loving everyone we happen to encounter, treating them in just the way we would care for ourselves and would want to be treated.
There are at least three things to consider when we think about the implications of what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel. The first is that the Torah—the law of God that constitutes the basis of Judaism, the very tradition that shaped Jesus’ own identity—does not separate religion and politics. For us today, that is a dynamic we must negotiate. We must always see our faith as both religious (oriented to God) and political (oriented to each other and to society in general). It is a great temptation to focus only on one and not the other. The present moment is one of intense political alienation, particularly around matters of race. The easy path is to withdraw and remain quiet, focusing on the private task of loving God. But that won’t do. We must find ways as individuals and a parish community to be both religious and political. We must be involved as a parish in the struggles of our neighbourhood, our city and country. In fact, what we learn from Jesus is that to be religious is to be political.
That’s the second thing to consider. Jesus says that the second commandment to love your neighbour “is like” the first commandment to love God. He doesn’t exactly mean that the first commandment is ranked in authority and importance over the second commandment. No, Jesus is getting at something more profound. When he says that the law and all the prophets hang on these two commandments, he’s making the point that loving God and loving neighbour are paired equally together. They are the backbone of the entire Old Testament and what it means to follow the Way of Jesus. So how is the commandment to love God “like” the commandment to love our neighbour? We love God by loving our neighbour. The second commandment is the first commandment put into action. To love God is to love all our neighbours, known and unknown, whose faces reflect the image of God. It works the other way too: if we’re not loving our neighbour, can we really claim to be loving God?
There’s a final point to consider that was just alluded to. The Bible, as we all know, is a complex collection of material and not always the easiest reading. Sometimes it’s difficult to see how all the different books fit together. Does the Bible have an overall coherence? How should we understand the relationship of all the Old Testament writings to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament? What Jesus offers is an interpretive key. He says that the law and the prophets—the entire Old Testament—hangs on two commandments: love God and love neighbour. So when we read Scripture, we should do it with that in view. Even the most obscure and problematic books somehow point to what it means to love God and love neighbour. That’s the underlying thrust of the Old Testament, and it captures what Jesus is all about. It’s what we, in our day, strive to do by following Jesus.
Loving God and loving neighbour: our religion is our politics. If there’s anything that will sustain us as individuals and as a community through this pandemic and social instability, it’s faith in action. Let’s continue to demonstrate our love for God by loving our each and every neighbour.