When I was in grade school, we were tested and re-tested on our ability to recite the Ten Commandments. Some people proclaim these ten laws to be the only things you need to know to follow God faithfully. It is interesting, though, that Jesus never quoted the Ten Commandments or held them up as central truths of our faith. Instead, he speaks of loving God and neighbor as being the highest commandments of all, and he tells the story about sheep, goats, and serving the least of God’s people as illustration of how to enact that love.
The command to love your neighbor as yourself comes from Leviticus. It is the ending statement of a section that begins much like the Ten Commandments, but the text then expands on the instruction. It dictates that we are not to show partiality to anyone because of their position in life. We are not to take revenge (in fact, we are not even to hold a grudge!) We are to harbor no hatred in our hearts, even against one who has done wrong and needs to be reproved. We are not to gossip. We are not to stand idly by when our neighbor’s life is at stake.
These seem in close parallel to what Jesus has in mind for us, which perhaps is why he quoted it. Yet when I let this expanded version of the Ten Commandments sink in, I am challenged to the depths of my soul. There are so many ways I fall short. I’ll choose just one: In many ways, I fail to live out the precept against standing idly by when my neighbor’s life is at stake. Examples:
– Millions of children in the U.S. go to bed hungry every night. I never do, and in fact I sometimes let food go bad in my fridge. How can I waste less, take more to food pantries, serve in or support soup kitchens, and donate more to hunger organizations like Second Harvest?
– People in many parts of the world have to carry heavy jugs of water for miles in order to stay alive. Yet I think nothing of taking long showers and barely consider ways to conserve water usage throughout the day. Can I change my ingrained habits, learning to act as if my own water supply was extremely limited? How can I also support organizations dedicated to providing clean, safe water worldwide?
– Congress keeps voting to cut back food stamps and “safety net” programs for the poorest people in our country. Have I done so much as write a letter in protest? Can I volunteer my time in one of those “safety net” programs?
– We have the highest rates of incarceration in the world, often inflicting harsh sentences for minor crimes. The death penalty, the ultimate form of retribution, is still enacted in 34 states. Can I become a pen-pal for someone in prison and bring respect and hope to someone without it? Can I volunteer as a driver to take children to visit incarcerated parents, or at least support those who do? In what ways can I oppose the death penalty and advocate for humane treatment of prisoners?
– Immigrants to this country often experience profound discrimination because of their clothing, religion, or accent. Indeed, I catch myself complaining when I can’t understand them, or being exasperated until I “finally reach someone who can speak English.” Can I instead reach out with patience, a smile and a kind word for immigrants on the phone or on the street, treating each one with the respect and care I’d want to be shown in a foreign country? Can I encourage the blending of cultures at my parish, attend ethnic celebrations, learn from those whose culture is different from mine, and welcome them fully?
I could go on and on. You may not agree with all of my examples. That isn’t the point. There are countless ways that my behavior puts another’s life at stake. Yet I sit more or less idly by because it isn’t in my face and doesn’t affect my day-to-day life. As long as I am not hungry, thirsty, a stranger, in prison, or in danger, I let myself get complacent.
Perhaps we all need to take the challenge of these laws more seriously. Choose one, and ask God to soften your heart, open your arms, and show you ways that you can more faithfully live out the challenge of that precept. If we all do just that…just one command…the word of God can shine forth more brightly, spreading truth, justice, and light to the ends of the earth.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.