At the time of Christ’s birth there was a great Jewish rabbi named Hillel, known for his wisdom and understanding. He died when Our Lord was about 15, so it’s possible Jesus met him personally—perhaps when, at the age of 12, He spent three days in the Temple with the elders and teachers while Mary and Joseph searched for Him. Hillel’s reputation and memory certainly would have been respected and honored by Jesus, as we can see from a certain legend about the great rabbi. From time to time there were Gentiles, or non-Jews, who desired to convert to Judaism. One of these Gentiles went to the rabbi Shammai, the leader of the stricter group of Pharisees. This Gentile explained that he wanted to convert, but had to leave Jerusalem almost immediately, and asked, “Therefore, Rabbi, can you teach me the whole Torah—the Jewish Law—in only the length of time that I can stand on one foot?” Shammai was insulted and furious, and angrily sent the man away. The Gentile then went to the rabbi Hillel and asked the same question. Hillel graciously accepted him as a convert and said, “Yes. Whatever is hateful to you, do not do it to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study” (Anthony Castle, Quotes & Anecdotes, p. 101).
It’s obvious from this story that Jesus’ later teaching was very similar to that of Hillel’s, which itself represents the best of Jewish tradition. In fact, we might say that Our Lord’s commandment in the Gospel of Matthew (22:34-40) is the best of Christian tradition, and the highlight of His teaching. Here, in a few short words, we have the purpose of life, the meaning of morality, and the secret of happiness; here we have the key to genuine self-fulfillment and inner peace. Simply stated, we are most fully alive and most true to ourselves when we sincerely love God and our neighbor.
Many people today are busily engaged in what they call “finding themselves,” but a selfish and self-centered search for meaning is always going to come up short. The readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time give us examples of how personal integrity, growth, and happiness are closely linked to loving God and other people. In the Book of Exodus, the Lord God is speaking to Moses and the Israelites soon after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. He is giving them a code of conduct, in which He makes very clear His concern for the lowly and the oppressed, including widows, orphans, and the poor. The Israelites themselves had been oppressed in Egypt; rather than becoming like their persecutors, they are to make a special effort to be kind and helpful to everyone in need. This is the gratitude or repayment God asks for freeing them from the misery of slavery: that they imitate His love and mercy. In his letter, St. Paul praises the Thessalonians precisely for their efforts to imitate God. They had received the Gospel with joy and then remained steadfast in it; like Jesus, they had persevered in doing the will of God the Father, and so could look forward to membership in His Kingdom. Responding to God’s love is presented as a means of achieving lasting happiness and genuine inner peace. As we see in the Gospel, however, not all people understand or accept this truth. The Pharisees approached Our Lord with a legal question, hoping to trap Him; in effect, they were trying to use the Law as a weapon. Jesus could have done the same; He was intelligent enough, wise enough, and well-educated enough to have fought the Pharisees on their own terms and to have defeated them easily and decisively. Instead of using the commandments as a weapon, however, He presented them as an invitation: an invitation to growth, holiness, and love. This is the greatest possible sign of love for God: being willing to grow as persons by serving Him and one another.
We find authentic freedom and happiness when we are true to our human nature. This, of course, raises the question: what exactly is uniquely characteristic of human beings? Is it being creative? No; insects and other living creatures do this—such as beavers building dams, bees establishing hives, or birds assembling nests. Is it uniquely human to use tools? No; monkeys use stones to knock down fruit from trees and sticks to stir up ant hills. Is it uniquely human to create societies and follow leaders, to form family units and care for and protect the young? No; many types of animals do these things. Is it uniquely human to analyze data, consider options, and make decisions? No, computers do this, and with ongoing developments in the field of artificial intelligence, we’re on the verge of having robots and computer programs capable of simple, and then increasingly complex, thinking and decision-making. What is unique to humans? Very simply, the ability to love—and indeed, the ability to choose to love. Some animals such as dogs are seemingly capable of emotions like loyalty and affection, but only people are truly capable of loving—and it’s only if we do love that we’re truly and fully human.
We’ve all probably had deep experiences of being loved by people who are important to us, experiences which help make us fully alive. Love makes life worth living; even though it involves risks, challenges, and sacrifices, love is essential to happiness. That’s why Jesus centers the commandments around it. The rules are necessary, but in a secondary way; they are like scaffolding used in constructing a building: important and even essential, but not part of the building itself. God asks each of us to construct a life of love; the rules can help us do this, but only if we follow them in the proper spirit. Each of us needs to ask ourselves this question from time to time: Why do we follow the rules and commandments? Out of fear? Out of habit? Simply because everyone else around us does, or because it’s easier that way? Those reasons are better than nothing, but they’re not enough; love must ultimately be the basis of everything we do for God and for one another. The Lord wants us to be happy, and He gives us the rules for this purpose. These commandments, however, merely point the way to freedom, happiness, and peace; it’s the love of God and neighbor that takes us there.