Imagine a non-Catholic coming to you and saying, “Tell you what: I’ll become Catholic if you can explain your faith to me while I stand on one foot. Ready? Go!”
What would you say? What could you say in so short a time?
Believe it or not, that silly challenge comes from a old Jewish story, possibly from before the birth of Christ, about two famous rabbis, Shammai and Hillel. The story goes that a pagan Gentile came first to Shammai and then to Hillel wanting to convert to the Jewish faith if they could teach him the whole Torah, the whole law of God, while he stood on one foot.
Shammai was outraged at this absurd request, and chased the man away with a stick of wood, a measuring rod. But Hillel was up to the challenge. He said, “Whatever is hateful to you, don’t do to others. This is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation. Go and learn it!”
That’s practically the Golden Rule, right? “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus said that in the Sermon on the Mount over a century after Hillel died.
But Hillel doesn’t stop there. That’s the whole Torah, he says, but the rest is explanation — so go and learn it! Yes: Understand the word of God well enough to explain it while standing on one foot — but then take that understanding and apply it to the rest of what God has to say.
A principle of one
Before Suzanne and I became Catholic, when we were Protestants, going to Protestant churches, we often heard what were called “three-point sermons.” A preacher would craft his sermon around three points, like many of us in grade school were taught to write essays with an introduction, a conclusion, and three body paragraphs. Three is a good number.
But when I went to seminary to study for the diaconate, the rule of thumb we were taught was that it’s good for a homily to have one central idea, one takeaway. Not three. One.
Why is that? Well, it’s not just to try to keep homilies short! The idea is that the deeper you go into any topic, the simpler and more unified it becomes. I’m sure many of you have heard the saying that if you can’t explain something simply — to a child — you don’t really understand it.
People often credit that to Einstein, or another scientist who said something similar. And you see this in science: the deeper you go, the more unified it becomes. Without getting technical, physicists today have a theory describing physical processes in terms of three of four basic forces, but they keep trying to come up with better theories explaining three or even all four basic forces with just one principle.
In the same way, the rabbis and teachers of Jesus’ day tried to go deeper into the will of God and understand the unifying principle underlying all of the many duties and commandments of their religion.
This is the question the scribe brings to Jesus: What is the first commandment, the great commandment — the master commandment that sums up all the rest?
Some of you may remember that the rabbis reckoned that all the commandments in the law of Moses, the Torah, added up to 613, and of course there were attempts to express the will of God in simpler ways, like the prophet Micah’s famous three precepts: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
That’s pretty good — but it’s still three. Can we do it in one?
Love and hatred
Jesus’ answer is from the Shema, the great Jewish prayer from our first reading from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” Many Jews pray this twice a day, at morning and evening. And the Shema includes the command “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
For Jesus, all the law and the prophets are summed up in love. He actually gives us two commands — love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself — but as St. Augustine points out, there’s really one principle here. Augustine writes:
Once for all this short command is given to you: “Love and do what you will” … let love be rooted in you, and from this root can spring nothing but what is good.
This might seem like platitudes, like clichés. And yet our world is full of so much hatred.
Sometimes hatred is vast and complicated, like the war in Yemen that’s killed tens of thousands and created the worst famine in a century, threatening millions with starvation. Sometimes it’s directed against just one person, like the Christian woman in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy against Islam, whose life is still in danger despite being acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Deadly hatred is not just overseas. We see it here. We saw it a week ago in Pittsburgh where an armed man walked into a synagogue and murdered 11 people and wounded 7 others out of hatred of the Jewish people, but also out of hatred of immigrants and refugees, since that synagogue was known for helping immigrants and refugees resettle in the United States.
We saw it in Kentucky where an armed man failed to gain access to a black Baptist church, and settled for murdering a couple of random black shoppers in a grocery store. We saw it on Friday in Tallahassee, where a man with a history of abusive language and behavior toward women walked into a yoga studio and fatally shot two women and himself, wounding five others.
Hatred of women, of people of color, of immigrants, of Christians — of “them,” whoever “them” is — hatred threatens everything. And even if you or I would never shoot someone, the temptation to hate comes to us in ways that are just as destructive. Especially at election time! Vote for “us” because — hate “them.”
The explanatory power of love
To this sickness of hatred, our Lord gives strong medicine. Love your enemies! Many religions teach love, but only Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
Scientists may or may not come up with the unifying theory that they’re looking for, but we Catholics have our unifying principle: It’s love, divine love, gift of self, because our faith teaches us that God is love.
I’m holding a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — 800 pages long, over 250,000 words. It seems very complicated.
It’s divided into four parts, covering different aspects of our faith: our creed, what we believe; how we worship; how we’re called to live; how we pray.
These are not four different, separate things. It’s all one thing: it’s all love. Love, gift of self, explains the whole catechism: the creed; the sacraments; the commandments, prayer.
Love explains the Blessed Trinity, eternal communion of three divine Persons eternally giving themselves to one another. It explains creation, God giving the world existence in love, for love, to give himself to his creatures for their good.
Love explains the Incarnation, the Father giving us his own Son, to be born as one of us, in order to give himself to the Father for us, on the Cross and in the sacraments, in which he shares divine nature with us and enables us to give ourselves to God with him.
Love explains the Ten Commandments. After Mass, if you walk out those doors in the back of the church and turn to the left, you’ll see a large display of the Ten Commandments, but at the bottom of the two tablets you’ll also see the two commandments of Jesus: Love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself.
Here it is, on one foot: Love, gift of self, is the whole Catholic faith. The rest — this Catechism — is explanation. Go and learn it.