Almost 1,700 years ago a Roman soldier approached the gates of the city of Amiens in what is today northern France. A beggar was sitting by the side of the gate. His clothes were so worn that hardly anything remained. When the soldier saw the plight of the man he immediately took off his soldier’s cape and with his sword cut it in two, sharing his own cloak with the poor man.
Later that night, while sleeping, he had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him saying to the angels: “Martin, who is still a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” Soon after Martin left the military to pursue baptism and a life as a Christian. Eventually he became a priest and bishop, the bishop of Tours, France. Hence we know him as “Martin of Tours.”
In the encounter with the poor man at the gates of Amiens, Martin was moved with compassion for him and loved him by sharing his cloak. The impact of this simple act of love was great. The man who received the cloak now had clothing, a generous gift probably beyond his imagining. The effect of this act of charity coupled with the realization that Christ was present in the poor had a remarkable effect on Martin. In a real way he discovered the meaning of life and the way of life — that is to love.
Jesus expresses this teaching as the greatest of the commandments of God in today’s Gospel reading for Mass. Once again he is being tested by a Pharisee. The Pharisee is trying to discredit Jesus and his mission. He asks the question: “Teacher (a term he uses with no sincerity), which of the commandments is the greatest?”
Some background may be helpful in understanding the Pharisee’s motives. The common understanding of that time was that God’s commandments were all on equal footing. The traditional count of commandments in the law was 613. By asking Jesus to rank one ahead of all the others was to have him teach against this understanding. The Pharisee’s aim was to have division created among Jesus’ followers or would-be followers, and to discredit him as a teacher.
Jesus, however, responds quoting the shema from the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:4 ff.). The shema has a special place in the law and the covenant. This could easily answer the question without much dispute. “You shall love the Lord, you God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind,” Jesus says and continues with, “This is the greatest and the first commandment.”
Now he joins this commandment to the second: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In doing so Jesus captures the heart of the law and manifests it in its foundation: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” What’s more is that when describing the second commandment Jesus teaches that it is “like” the first. In other words the two commandments are so joined together that one cannot separate them.
Love of God without love of neighbor is not really a love of God; love of neighbor without love of God is not really a love of neighbor. These two commandments are essential if we are to understand and recognize God’s love. Jesus teaches us that it is God’s will that we love.
Jesus personifies this love in the giving up of his life for the poor. In a certain sense humanity was destitute due to the sin of Adam. Adam had turned from God and chose the love of himself over the love of God. Very quickly that selfishness spread and sin increased — recall in the story that when God asks Adam why he ate the fruit that was forbidden not to eat, he blames Eve. Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will was an act of love — love of God his Father. Jesus’ laying down his life to restore mankind was an act of love — the love of neighbor.
Jesus summarizes and brings to fulfillment the “law and the prophets.” He does this not only in his teaching but in his person. The law of love remains for all to follow. In a very real way the love of neighbor is the love of God in the neighbor. C.S. Lewis captures this when he writes: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him is also Christ vere latitat – the glorifier and the glorified. Glory Himself is truly hidden.”
In St. Luke’s account of this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee, he includes the story of the Good Samaritan as an illustration of who is “neighbor.” The point of the story is that the neighbor was the one who acted with compassion; in other words, the one who loved.
The first reading for today’s liturgy, from the Book of Exodus, reminds us that those who are in most need are clearly our neighbors and likewise in need of loving care and attention. Those mentioned here are the “alien” or “stranger” (who are foreigners living among the Israelites; those from foreign countries who have no home among the people; who are not under the law of Israel); the widow, the orphan, and those in financial need. This Exodus passage is part of the law of which Jesus speaks. Notice the great concern God has for those who are in need. The law is given to protect and to care for the needy. The reference to foreigners includes the reminder to the Israelites “for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”
With this reference God’s law is eliciting compassion from the hearts of the Israelites. The same is true with the taking of a neighbor’s cloak as a pledge. The cloak is to be returned at night “for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”
St. Martin is a great example of how the love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined. Above I mentioned the impact that Martin’s act of love had on the poor man and on Martin himself. But the impact was not limited to those two. If you go to the region around Tours and Poitiers in France today you will see the image of Martin splitting his cloak in many different forms of art: statues, stained glass, paintings, graphic representations, flags, banners, screen savers and so forth. For hundreds of years that one simple act of love has inspired others to do the same.
Many people have come to believe in the love of God for them in the love they receive from their fellow human beings. We are often reminded today to be evangelizers, to spread the Gospel of Christ “to all the nations.” The need is great because there is a need for love. As we go forth today to live the Gospel we are called, once again, to love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.