What is heavier: a ton of coal or a ton of cotton wool? I remember when I was a child, being asked that question, or a variant on the theme, where one item was clearly “heavier” than the other. Except it wasn’t. I’d missed the point. I’d confused volume with weight. Of course if you put coal on one side of the scales and an equal sized piece of cotton wool on the other side, the coal would come crashing down and the cotton wool would float up. But that wasn’t the question. Humans are very good at missing the point, or not seeing the obvious.
When a group of Pharisees try to gang up on Jesus (again) to trick him into blasphemy or saying something they could “prove” him wrong about, once more he sidesteps their attempt. He simply doesn’t play by their rules. And so there can be no game. Which commandment in the Law of Moses is more important? Is it this, or is it that? Tell us!
Jesus’ reply is brilliant, and so simple. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” In effect – God is the creator and centre of the universe, not you, or me, or any human; we are all equal and all loved and precious to God.
This pithy reply is followed up by another question: “Who is my neighbour?”, in reply to which Jesus told that most famous parable of the Good Samaritan. He made it clear that our neighbour is anyone in need, not just those of our tribe, or “people like us”.
Nowadays we often talk of being a good neighbour, of having good moral values, or the importance of human dignity, but we don’t acknowledge where those principles really first came from. They are Jewish values, from the Law of Moses, which remained part of the core values of Christianity as it gradually separated from Judaism. Most people sign up to the second part of the Great Commandment (Love your neighbour as yourself) in theory, even if in practice we are more tribal than we’d like to admit, even to ourselves. But we love the illusion of control so much that the first part of the Great Commandment is very hard indeed. Admitting we’re not as great as we wish, that our knowledge and humanity is, by definition, finite, is hard. Loving God with all we are requires humility, and of all the virtues this must surely be one of the hardest in the modern world.
Which is more important? To love God, or to love our neighbour? To go to church, or to give to charity? To be morally good, or to do the right thing? It’s exactly the same type of question as whether a ton of coal or cotton wool is heavier. Neither – a ton is a ton. Their volume is what differs! In the same way, if we love God then we will love our neighbour, as surely as night follows day. If we go to church to worship and give thanks to God for His love for us, then we will know the vital importance of giving assistance to our neighbours in need through various charities. If we are morally good, we will automatically do the right thing, because to do otherwise would be unthinkable.
Many people who don’t subscribe to any faith at all can still agree with and act upon the second part of this – to love one’s neighbour as oneself – and indeed this is a fairly uncontroversial basic social principle in theory, even if less common in practice. However it seems important to acknowledge where our principles come from, if we are to truly understand and embrace them, instead of missing the point. Why does this matter? Why should I love my neighbour? Why should my neighbour include people who don’t look or speak like me? The answer “because all humans matter” simply begs the question, “why?”, or “says who?”
In the end, without the authority of God backing the commandment, it loses all its real power. It becomes fussing over definition, instead of focussing on what really is at the heart of it all. It risks missing the point, and becoming lost in the ensuing argument of detail.