A revised top 10 list

I'm still haunted by a late 1960s survey of American Catholics. Participants were asked just one question: What's the more important law -- love your neighbor, or give up meat on Friday? More than 50 percent responded, "Give up meat on Friday." When meatless Fridays trump love of neighbor, we Catholics are in deep trouble.

David Letterman didn't invent the top 10 list. In one form or another, such inventories have been around for a long time -- even during the biblical period.


Thirtieth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Exodus 22:20-26
Psalm 18
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Matthew 22:34-40

Yahweh's followers were expected to keep 613 laws, regulations that governed everything from what they ate to their personal hygiene. Though Israelites considered all these laws of Moses important, they also realized that some were more important than others. Which laws are essential for Yahweh's people; which are at the center of their faith, and which are on the periphery?

This was an especially pertinent question for Matthew's Jewish Christian community, disciples of Jesus who were also committed to keeping the 613 Sinai regulations. Unlike many of us, they didn't regard Jesus as a founder of a new religion. In their minds, this itinerant preacher was simply a reformer of the religion they already practiced: Judaism.

Reformers rarely teach anything new. They simply take something on the outskirts of people's faith and move it to the center, and move what's in the center to the periphery. They basically create a new top 10 list.

The reforming bishops of the Second Vatican Council, for instance, didn't create a lot of new "stuff." They simply asked us to return to the theologies and practices with which the earliest followers of Jesus would have been comfortable. Of course, for many of the faithful, such a request felt like they were being asked to commit to something brand new, to accept ideas and practices conjured up by a group of radical, liberal theologians.

Just because a teaching or practice is new to some doesn't mean it's really new. It simply might have been outside our field of vision -- for centuries.

During Jesus' earthly ministry, every Jewish man was expected to greet the sunrise by praying the Shema. Taken from Deuteronomy 6, the prayer begins, "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength."

Nothing can or should replace this fundamental law of Judaism. The 612 other laws only exist because of the Israelites' covenant with Yahweh.

But Jesus quickly joins the second most important regulation to the first, quoting Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

In one of Judaism's most treasured stories, the famous teacher Hillel answered a gentile's taunt to teach him the entire Torah (all 613 laws) in the time it took him to stand on one foot by responding: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn." Love of others is a constant for anyone who enters a relationship with Yahweh.

Those who are still tempted to get bogged down in the Mosaic Law's minutiae, should listen to the regulations listed in today's Exodus passage. They demonstrate a few practical ways in which one is expected to love one's neighbor.

More than anything, the Sinai pact sees to it that we take care of those who traditionally are unable to care for themselves. Three groups fit that category: orphans, widows and resident aliens. Without the help of others, they're on their own, at a time and in a place in which more powerful people can and will run roughshod over them. Not only are Jews not permitted to take part in such abuse, they're to remember their own experiences of helplessness when they were once enslaved and refugees. Without the help of Yahweh, the chosen people would have been decimated in Egypt.

Should anyone miss the point, the Exodus author summarizes Yahweh's personality in one classic line: "I am compassionate." Law-abiding followers of Yahweh are expected to share Yahweh's compassion.

I remember a workshop exercise in which we were asked to list 10 things we considered priorities in our lives. Then, on the other side of the paper, we were to write the date of the last time we actually did one of those things. It was a revelation. Thinking about something isn't close to doing something about it. Rarely do we live our priorities.

Some critics of Pope Francis point out that he really isn't teaching anything new. I agree, but would also say that Francis has prioritized some of our oldest teachings. He has a new top 10 list, and, even more striking, he's actually living it. With a straight face he can repeat Paul's statement, "[Be] imitators of us and of the Lord."

[Roger Vermalen Karban is pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Renault, Ill.]

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