What Comes First?
01 April 1988
In the Jewish law the requirement to love one's neighbour followed a prohibition of hatred and revenge. Jesus stretched its meaning to include not only relations and the people next door, but anyone in need.
By MICHAEL HUTCHINSON
An African who profoundly affected a collapsing Europe repeatedly asked God both to give him the qualities to fulfil his commands, and to command whatever he wanted. St Augustine's prayer - 'Give what you command; command what you will' - angered Pelagius, a British contemporary with a large following, who believed that a person could get on the right course by an effort of will. Some say that this has been the British approach to religion ever since.
So what does God command? An educated man once asked Jesus which was the most important of his commandments. The Gospel writers must have thought it was an important exchange, for three of them describe it, each with different detail and emphasis. For good measure Jesus came back with two commandments: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as you love yourself.' He added that the two resembled one another and that on them depended all God's law and the teaching of God's prophets.'
The man already knew how seriously his people had been told to take the first of these instructions: 'Never forget these commands that I am giving you today. Teach them to your children. Repeat them when you are at home and when you are away, when you are resting and when your are working.'
In the Jewish law the requirement to love one's neighbour followed a prohibition of hatred and revenge. Jesus stretched its meaning to include not only relations and the people next door, but anyone in need. To make the point he told the story of the Good Samaritan -- in which a man who is mugged is helped not by his fellow-countrymen or co-religionists, but by a man who is regarded as a second-class citizen and a religious outsider. In the global village we now live in, who is not my neighbour?
To re-emphasize these two commands to love is not to say that for Christians the rest of the Church's teaching is unimportant. It is to say that we have taken our lessons in the wrong order and neglected the priorities. Failure to love God and neighbour-and nothing else - has led to divisions and wars between Christians and to Christian intolerance, arrogance and even hatred towards people of other faiths.
Outdated as duelling
St John, in his letters, encourages us to start with the love of a brother, whom we have seen, as a first step to loving God, whom we have not seen.
Never was this more needed than today. On television and in the press we are treated daily - in national and international affairs, in sport and, sadly, in religion - to accounts of A denouncing B, trying to cut him down to size and write him off. B generally repays in the same coin. Writers and interviewers merely reflect current values, and if mentally we join in condemnation on one side or the other, we are accomplices. We are so hardened to it that we accept it as normal. But as a means of arriving at the truth or getting anything settled, this method is as effective as duelling, and ought to be as out of date.
Yet we hunger for another way, and respond immediately whenever anyone breaks through the barriers with compassion or forgiveness, like the young man from Derry in Northern Ireland who says that during three years in prison the words of the prayer ascribed to St Francis got under his skin: 'May I seek not so much to be understood as to understand.'
Jesus said plainly that if you saw your brother on the wrong course you must talk with him face to face, that if this failed you must try again with one or two friends, and that only if both approaches failed should you resort to public action. This sounds like an intelligent policy for anyone, but most critics, even those who profess to be Christians, seem to have skipped stages one and two.
The loudest in denunciation may be the most blind about himself. I have found that every shortcoming I see in public figures or private acquaintance, in family or friends, is a challenge to look at myself and to live more compellingly the way I want that other person to live. This is a step in loving my neighbour as myself.
On the first Easter Day Jesus, risen from the dead, said to his closest followers, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.' They soon learnt that the spirit of the world was different from the Spirit of God. There is the world's way of dealing with what is wrong and there is God's way. This Easter it is time to choose. 'Give what you command'-that love of each neighbour which opens the way to the wholehearted love of God.