Not for All the Gold

Ex 22:0-26 • 1 Thes 1:5c-10 • Mt 22:34-40

Adam Hochschild, in his book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, writes of the disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do. He speaks about the imperative to love, and as Pope Francis says, particularly love the poor and the oppressed, and how we often fail to do anything.

Hochschild offers examples of saying one thing yet doing another from late-18th-century religious and political leaders and their relationship with slavery. They were all against slavery — at least until it affected their pocketbooks.

John Locke, one of the leading political thinkers and writers of that day in England, wrote regularly about the evils of slavery; however, he also had a large sum of money invested in the Royal African Company. The slaves sold by the company all had RAC branded on their chests. French philosopher Voltaire ridiculed slavery in his book Candide. Despite this, a slave ship owner offered to name a new ship for Voltaire, and Voltaire accepted the “honor.” Of course in the American South, despite preaching love of God and neighbor, even some Catholic convents and churches owned slaves. The list goes on.

There is another story that tells of a nun in New York who worked in a hospital. One day, as the nun was trying to bathe a combative and abusive patient, a fellow nurse remarked in a stage whisper, “I wouldn’t do that for all the gold in Fort Knox.” Hearing the comment, the nun looked at the nurse and said, “Neither would I.”

The early teachers of Judaism had to make learning and keeping the 613 commandments of the Torah as easy as they could. Although distinctions of seriousness were drawn between some of the commandments, they all came from God and therefore they were all equally important. The reward or punishment for keeping or breaking a serious precept was exactly the same as for a lesser precept. To help the faithful follow the Torah, rabbis attempted to summarize it in short statements. One of the most notable rabbis, Hillel, said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is a commentary on it; go and learn it.”

Like the question regarding the coin and the tax last week, there is an unanswerable question asked of Jesus in today’s reading: Which is the greatest commandment? Had Jesus singled out any one commandment, He would have violated the belief that, because God gave them all, all had equal importance. Jesus responded but instead of singling out one commandment, He quoted part of the Schema, a creed and prayer that every religious Jew recited several times during the day: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That would have been enough to satisfy the Pharisees, but Jesus added more. Again quoting the Torah, He said that we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

Matthew takes great pains to emphasize that both commands are of equal gravity. Matthew says, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Today’s passage from Exodus deals with how we should treat people. Immigrants (aliens), widows and orphans were, in that day and often in ours, the most defenseless in society. How we treat them reveals our character as a people and as individuals. Exodus tells us that God has a special love for the alien, the widow and the orphan, and that He offers them special protection. Exodus makes it clear that we must never take advantage of the defenseless in society. Not much else can make God as angry as mistreating or failing to protect aliens, widows, orphans, or the poor.

We might need to bring the words of Exodus and Jesus’ command into our national debates about immigration and other issues affected the poor and disadvantaged. While many people make pawns out of immigrants and the poor in our political wars, we cannot forget that these are human beings. These are explicitly the “neighbor” Jesus meant when he told us we must “love your neighbor as yourself.”

How are loving God and loving neighbor connected? Simply put, we are made in the image and likeness of God. The scriptural sense is that God made a mold of himself and we are cast from it. To love others is to love God himself. We cannot be like those who said they were against slavery yet participated in it. We cannot claim to love God and neighbor when we reduce human beings to pawns. Seeing God in everyone we encounter is easier said than done, as the nun in the hospital discovered, yet this is the basis of our faith and part of the criteria for our final judgment.

FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.