“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” These words, known as the Shema are the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer and the focus of all biblical teaching. Because there is only one God we are told: “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” From this foundation everything else follows. Rabbi Hillel, one of the most well known rabbis in Jewish history, was teaching in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. One day a Gentile approached one of Hillel’s contemporaries and said, “I will convert to Judaism is you can teach me everything that I need to know while standing on one foot.” The rabbi berated the man for his lack of commitment to faith and learning and sent him on his way. A little while later, this same Gentile approached Rabbi Hillel with the same challenge. Rabbi Hillel stood on one foot and said, “Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself. All the rest is commentary.” The man became a disciple of Rabbi Hillel and eventually converted to Judaism.
The scribe in today’s gospel is testing Jesus with a variation of the question put to Rabbi Hillel. He wants to know whether Jesus will teach in a way that makes faith accessible to everyone or whether he will embellish and complicate the teachings so that only a select few are able to approach God. Jesus makes it clear that what is expected of us is something that can be done by everyone regardless of wealth or education or location. It may not be easy, but it is not complicated. In the words of an old song: “All you need is love:” love for God, love for others and love for yourself.
This is a message that is desperately needed in today’s world where day after day the news is filled with stories of people who are suffering because of hate, prejudice, greed or apathy – each of which is a failure to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. It is worth noting here that the instruction to love our neighbours as we love ourselves is not so much an instruction to love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves, as it is an instruction to love our neighbours at the same time as we are loving ourselves. Each time we make a decision we should be asking ourselves: in making this choice, am I demonstrating love for God, love for my neighbour and love for myself? If the answer to any of these is “no,” then we are called to make a different decision.
Too often we make choices that will protect our way of life without thinking about the impact that they will have on others. We are act with love for ourselves and our family but we are not showing love for our neighbours and their families at the same time. Many Jews have a small case called a mezuzah containing the words of the Shema attached to the doorframes of their homes to remind them of the commandment to love God and love their neighbour. Perhaps in response to today’s Gospel each of us could place Jesus’ summary of the two great commandments somewhere in our own homes where we will read it each day and use it to shape all of our decisions.