Thought for the week - 29 October 2023
People often have polarised views about faith and as I was saying last week, at this precise moment in the history of the world, they tend to be swinging towards seeing it as a negative force, so we have much work to do in changing that perception, and todays Gospel is right up there in the ‘helpful’ camp as far as that is concerned. Maybe if someone were to ask you what your faith, our faith, is about, we would be tempted to say primarily ‘love’ – and quite rightly so too. But it is hard to point to the world stage and see love bursting forth from those who share our Baptism – from conservative Christians in the US backing Trump come what may, to the Russian Orthodox Church backing Putin come what may, to the Church of England wrestling with who can and cannot love (at least on their premises), it can be hard to convince people that we are all one family of God, and indeed maybe we don’t always want to be, when we survey our Baptismal Brothers, Aunts and Nieces! Maybe it’s not as simple as just being about love. In today’s Gospel Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment, but answers with two. Around the time of Jesus, it was a contentious issue as to whether the commandments, or even the entire Jewish Law, could be reduced to simple one-liners. Some Rabbis thought it was possible, some modern-day religious commentators think it is possible, most of us know that it’s a lifelong journey of love lived through faith which, like any love, has good days and not so good days. A reasonable way of deciding whether a church preaches the word of God is to look at their placards at protests – if they begin with the words ‘God hates’, it might be time to rethink where you are going!
If Jesus was trying to sum-up his entire message, why did he give us two commandments — two lines — rather than one? Can’t the love of neighbour be understood as part of what it is to love God? And can we love our neighbour without loving God? I think most of us would agree that they belong together, even when – maybe especially when – our neighbours seem so distant and alien to us.
This is where I can get onto one of my favourite topics: that religion and Christianity is as much a doing thing as it is a thinking thing. Perhaps doing is more important. Thinking may come into it. It should, however, never be the case that you can have the thinking aspect of religion without the doing part. Christianity is a verb, I like to say, not a noun. You can’t label something ‘Christian’, but you can be Christian, you can make Christian things, like peace and harmony. Just labelling something as ‘like us’ or ‘not like us’ is tautologous, it makes a verb into a noun. This is why Christ gives us two things to love, one of which, God, ‘nouns’ us – makes us Christian, but we also become that through the verb, the action, of loving each other.
There is a tendency in Christianity to separate works from belief — that you can somehow have the belief without the works. What I want to suggest is that we tend to see the first commandment, ‘love of God’, as a ‘belief’ — something in the head, while we see the second, ‘love of neighbour’, as something we do, that is, being nice to people, thus reducing ‘love’ to an intellectual participation game. It is not so! If we feel that ‘love of our neighbour’ can be seen as separate from belief in God. It seems that we can sit at home believing in God without doing anything else, and that is not true either, because we are not loving one another.
For a chaplain in the Metropolitan Police, people who would never normally come anywhere near a minister of religion were forced into contact with me. So, I have lost count of the number of times people have said to me, “I believe in some kind of God, but I don’t think I need to go to church. I haven’t got time for institutional religion. It’s what you believe that is important.” Circumstances usually dictate that I had to be polite, so I reply with a “how very interesting.” What I am actually thinking is that this person could not be more wrong. Sitting at home as we have already mentioned, believing in God and feeling good, doesn’t get us anywhere. It does not make us Christians.
In the Gospel Jesus is asked for the greatest of the commandments. He does not say love of God alone but adds love of neighbour. Jesus gives them both. He is asked for one commandment and answers with two. Perhaps an indication that he saw them as one and the same thing.
You have to go out and find your neighbour. Find those who need help, and work and worship with those who want to do the same. We can then express communion with our neighbour and with God in communion at Mass. Then, the noun and the adjective are joined perfectly, and we become what the Father wishes to label us as, and we understand the fulness of His call.