One summer I worked as a coal-sampling technician for the local power plant. Each day 100 or
so carloads of coal would be unloaded from a train. From some of the cars a sample would be
taken. I, in turn, would take a sample from each sample. These samples would be crushed and
pulverized, dried and divided, weighed and measured. I would take a sample from each and do
the same. By the end of the process I would have a packet of coal weighing a few ounces that
would represent the quality of the coal from the whole trainload. Hundreds of tons were
reduced to a few ounces.
A similar kind of reduction took place among the rabbis. Throughout the OT there were efforts
to reduce the number of laws by summing them up. Tradition says that Moses received 613
laws at Mount Sinai. That’s a lot to keep track of. King David summed them up in 11
commandments in Psalm 15. The prophet Isaiah captured the essence of the law in only 6. The
prophet Micah reduced them to 3: “Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly with your God.” But in
today’s gospel Jesus sums up the law with only 2 commandments.
Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to tell people to love God and to love their neighbor. Many before
and since have said the same. But what is new is putting them both together, side-by-side. To
Jesus religion involved both love God and neighbor. And if we don’t love our neighbor or
anyone else for that matter, St. John tells us, then we really don’t love God. It’s as simple, basic
and challenging as that.
When Jesus commands us to love our neighbors, he doesn’t mean that we are to feel the same
way about them as we do about our spouses, our children, our parents and dear friends. Jesus
does mean that we must CARE for their welfare, THINK of their needs, and SINCERELY
DESIRE what is best for them. And by “our neighbor” Jesus doesn’t mean only those who live
around us. Jesus means all people everywhere.
A rabbi asked his students when they could tell that night had ended and day was beginning.
1 student spoke up and said, “Could it be when you looked at a TREE in the distance and could
tell whether it was a fig or an olive tree?” “No,” said the rabbi. A second pupil suggested,
“Could it be when you see an ANIMAL in the distance and can tell whether it is a sheep or a
goat?” The rabbi shook his head. When each of his students tried and failed, the Rabbi said,
“You can tell when night has ended and day has begun when you can look at the face of any
man or woman and see that he or she is your brother or sister. Because if you can’t do that,
then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”