In the time of Jesus strict orthodox Jews wore little leather sachets (“phylacteries”) around their wrists, containing verses from Scripture. One of these verses was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13). To which the Scribes added, “You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). In other words, when the Scribe (in today’s gospel reading) asked, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus gave him the Scribes’ own answer!

The further question was also a common one: “Who is my neighbour?” Some Rabbis restricted it to fellow Jews; others gave a somewhat wider definition. But Jesus turned the question inside out. He did not answer the question, Who is my neighbour? but a different question, Who should I be neighbour to? These two questions may seem more or less the same, but they are quite different. The first question is about other people and how they are to be classified; the second question is about myself and how I should behave towards others.

It is easier to deal with questions that only have to do with things (or people) ‘out there’. But many of the difficult things that challenge us are very much ‘in here’! Assuredly that is why we project things onto other people. I remember a teacher long ago who used to spend the whole day telling everyone they were stupid. The explosive way he pronounced it - steuuuupit! - made it sound much worse than stupid. Meeting him years later I saw he was not a clever person. What he was doing, all those years before, was projecting onto us the stupidity he couldn’t admit in himself, and condemning it.

It’s a bit terrifying when it first strikes you clearly: what you see around you is what lies within you. “Two men look out through prison bars, One sees mud and the other stars.” Two people grow up in the same family; one remembers the good things, the other remembers nothing but bad. Two people look at a third; one sees a decent person struggling, the other sees a write-off. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite pass an injured man and see only a problem to be avoided; the Samaritan (and to Jews, Samaritans were heretics) saw the same man and saw his need of help. How you see and act depends on what is inside you. Jesus looks at you and says, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13,14). He was able to say that because he himself was the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). He was willing to say it because he was filled with love.

Do you recall a question in the catechism, “What is commanded by the first Beatitude?” Or, “What is forbidden by the sixth Beatitude?” Or, “What else is forbidden by the third Beatitude?” No you don’t, because there were no such questions. The catechism paid scant attention to the Beatitudes, though these are the essence of the Christian way of life. The Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s gospel), of which they are a part, is called ‘the Gospel within the Gospel’. Well, then, these are the Gospel within the Gospel within the Gospel! They are the heart of the matter, but we devoted all our attention to a summary of Jewish law. The Ten Commandments are that, but of course they are also basic morality, and therefore irreplaceable. However, the world of the Beatitudes is a world beyond them. Our minds were attuned to commandment and prohibition - both of which are manageably ‘out there’ - but love in practice is closer to the bone. It is about you and me.

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.