The Great Commandment in Beirut

Exodus 22:20-26, Matt.22: 34-40; 25 October 2020; 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Vivian Yee is a correspondent for the New York Times stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. On August 4th of this year, Beirut was shaken by a tremendous chemical explosion. Many people were killed, and thousands were wounded. Vivian was one of these. Her face was cut by flying glass from her apartment window. As she staggered out onto the street, she entered something like a war zone, with many wounded people seeking assistance.

Vivian reports that on that day of chaos, two things struck her about the city of Beirut: its faith and its service. Its faith was expressed in a greeting that she heard time and again that day. It was spoken in Arabic, but the translation was “Thank God for your safety.” It was an act of faith. When one person saw another person on the street who, even though wounded, was still alive, the person would call out, “Thank God for your safety.” It was as if the whole city was raising its voice to God in thanksgiving for those who survived. Vivian experienced not only faith, but also service. A man riding by on a moped saw her bloody face, and asked her to hop on. He drove her to the hospital where she joined a long line of those waiting for assistance. As he pulled away, he said “Thank God for your safety.” As she waited in line, another stranger named Yoseph asked her to sit on the curb, and carefully washed and bandaged her face. He too thanked God for her safety.  

This chaotic scene in the city of Beirut is an apt illustration of Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel. When he is asked “What is the greatest commandment?” he gives two: Love God, and Love your neighbor. What Jesus is saying is that both of these commandments are necessary. A complete and unconditional love of God must be connected to acts of healing and care we extend to one another. No meaningful love of God is possible without love of neighbor. Like Vivian’s experience in Beirut, both faith and service are required.

Now you and I know Jesus’s Great Commandment and we follow it. We love God. We praise God’s name. We worship together in this parish community. We love our neighbors. We provide for our families, treasure our friends, and try to live in peace with everyone. But what makes Jesus’s command difficult is that he does not limit the definition of neighbor to those who are in our closest circle of relationships. Jesus extends the meaning of neighbor to anyone who is in need. Like Vivian’s experience, whoever is wounded becomes a neighbor to us.

Now who are those who are wounded in our world today? Who are in need? We could make a long list of possibilities. But today’s first reading from the book of Exodus makes three suggestions: the widow, the poor, and the alien. The “widow” stands for anyone who is isolated, who is cut off from relationships that support life. A widow could be the man in our neighborhood who just lost his wife after sixty years of marriage. It could be someone you know isolated in a nursing home. The widow is in need, therefore, she is a neighbor. Jesus calls us to love her. The “poor”represents anyone who is struggling to survive. It could be someone who has lost a job, or is unable to pay a mortgage because of Covid 19. It could be someone compromised by alcohol or drugs. The poor are wounded by life and become our neighbors. Jesus calls us to love them. “Aliens” in the bible are non-Jews who live in Israel. They therefore represent anyone who is different. This certainly includes immigrants who wish to live among us in this country, but it also includes those already in this country, who because of race, background, or religion, do not have full access to the freedoms that we enjoy. The prejudice against them wounds them and makes them our neighbor. Jesus calls us to love them.

It might sound simple when Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbor. But it becomes difficult when we realize that anyone who is wounded is our neighbor. Each time we encounter such a person, we have to do more than say “Thank God for your safety.” We must also find a way to love and to care for them in their need.

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