How would you describe yourself? Is there a word that would capture your essence and personality completely? Probably not. So we content ourselves with partial descriptions. We would probably prefer to reference the best of who we are and the things we like most about ourselves. “Hi, I’m really easy-going.” Or “I’m intensely motivated.” “I’m infectiously cheerful.” Or “I’m annoyingly attentive to detail.” “I’m resolutely practical.” Or “I’m scrupulously objective.” “I’m a hopeless romantic.” Or “I’m a fact-based optimist.” “I create expressions of beauty in a sterile environment.” Or “When I’m in my element I like to roll up my sleeves and get dirt in my nails.”
We might refer to things we do for a living or things we do at our leisure. “Hi, I have a boring day job, but I compose quirky greeting cards for unusual occasions.” Or “I listen to people’s problems all day, but I also write funny fortune cookie messages.” Or “I help put away bad guys, but I really enjoy volunteering at the local youth center.”
We might describe ourselves in terms of those who bring fulfillment to our lives, or who we have become because of them. Or we reference things we typically consider positive qualities or blessings or achievements. “Hi, I’m so-and-so’s awesome and clearly more attractive better half.” Or “I’m the proud parent of a future Olympic gold medalist or a future Nobel Prize recipient or a future student athlete of the week.” Or “I’m the designated spoiler-in-chief of three gorgeous and brilliant grandchildren who worship the ground I walk on.”
We might describe ourselves as staunch believers and reformed sinners, critical independent thinkers and amateur culture influencers. We are proud entrepreneurs in promising business ventures, or proud owners of cutting-edge technological marvels, or proud recipients of outstanding public acclaim. We willingly acknowledge whatever sets us apart that most likely boosts our status or standing in our neighbor’s esteem.
Conversely, we are not likely to admit to things that diminish our status or standing. We would prefer not to be known as aliens or foreigners or strangers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Even the words “widow” and “orphan,” while not meant to sound negative, in fact point out that something or rather someone is missing. Similarly, those who identify as poor or overwhelmed or disasters in life or love have truly no cause to feel less than everyone else. Yet there seems to be a stigma associated with this sort of uniqueness. Ancient societies have put greater emphasis on husbands and fathers providing for their families, so that widows and orphans were at greater risk for poverty and exploitation and hopelessness. What the law demanded regarding their treatment was meant to drive away any negativity, even to threatening God’s wrath against offenders. Clearly God has a soft spot for the weak, the vulnerable, the outcast, the stranger, the poor, the suffering, and the children.
Jesus introduced nothing new when he declared that God demanded of us in the law a love for our neighbor—the alien, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the poor. What was new was that he gave love for our neighbor equal importance to our love for God. Now I have read this passage in the bible many times. I am also familiar with what it means. I have spent time reflecting on practical applications of this passage, and found myself immersed in life, taking phone messages and emails, doing laundry, washing dishes, walking the dog, and watching a few episodes of some Netflix series. It might look like “writer’s block.” To me, it’s “waiting for the gospel to come alive.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” That doesn’t seem to leave room for loving anything or anyone else. And I will be the first to admit that God has not always been my highest or first or only love. God has on occasion lost out to dessert and naps and selfishness and greed, not to mention dishonesty and laziness and anger and pride. Yes, there were times when other things took higher priority.
“The second commandment is just like the first: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He didn’t say that the second ranks below the first or that we should pay attention to the second only if we have time left over from paying attention to the first. He says it is “just like” the first. Loving my neighbor is “just like” loving God above all things. So I guess there is room around this commandment for loving others. And upon further reflection, it is the only concrete application of the commandment to love God.
In Exodus we read instructions on how to love specific other people—the alien, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the poor. Specific individuals and concrete actions help frame how this commandment of love comes alive. And I am convinced, that was when the gospel came alive for me. I was at Mass with Bishop Knestout yesterday (Saturday) where he commissioned 11 women ecclesial ministers who each had completed some years of theological study. Among them was Michele Kresge, for many years our Coordinator of Faith Formation for Children and Youth. Each of them would know exactly what Jesus meant. I’m sure in their roles as church ministers they have encountered specific other people who make it most challenging to obey even a direct command from God. But love them we must, all of them—the alien, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, or in my case, the rude, the demanding, the arrogant, the inconsiderate, the selfish, the small-minded, the marginally involved, the part-time Catholic, the opportunist, the despotic, and the oblivious. That’s just my list. And you will never know if you’re on my list. Just leave it at that. I’m probably on some of yours.
What God asks of me isn’t terribly profound or unusual. Occasionally I might encounter foreigners or widows or orphans in the course of my day. Instead I encounter people along various stages of their journey of faith, exhausted, encouraging, liberating, struggling, unmotivated, inspiring, infuriating, draining, disheartening. And that is exactly where God sends me to put into action his commandment of love. The mystery and its meaning were always staring me in the face.
Love of God means little without love of my neighbor, sometimes in generalities, sometimes with specific lovely people in mind. No big surprises, no bombshells. Just simple, ordinary, uncomplicated gestures of care and attention right where I am. God directs special care and attention to those who are most frequently left out, ignored, or regarded as insignificant. Popular culture will at times designate for us who’s on that list. But we don’t need any help. We need only begin with the list we already have.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020