Jesus said that the greatest commandment was that we love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. He didn’t mean there were separate ways of loving with hearts, souls, and minds. That was the Jewish way of saying completely.
He said there was a second commandment like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In saying we must love our neighbor “as ourselves” I always thought that little word “as” meant “as much as.” We are to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. But one day in the middle of the week fifty years ago when I had a country parish in Korea it occurred to me that by that little word “as” Jesus really meant we must love our neighbor “as though he were” ourselves.
To love someone as though he were myself would call for empathy. It would require me to imagine what it would be like to be that other person. Great actors get ready for a role by practicing empathy. They call it “Method Acting.” If an actor were to play the role of an old-time New York cop he’d locate one of them if he still could. He’d walk his beat behind him. He’d drag an imaginary billyclub against an imaginary iron fence. He’d pinch the peaches at the fruit stand, helping himself to one. He’d swing his mid-section from side to side the way the cop in front of was moving. He’d get into the cop’s thoughts: thinking about retiring, imagining the dinner the wife was making.
Let me mention the first reading. It strove to stir the Jews up to practice empathy for aliens. It did this by recalling that they were “once aliens in the land of Egypt.” That has me recalling my great grandparents landing in New York and Boston. They had to keep moving west because on the east coast the help wanted signs all read “Irish need not apply.”
Like I say, it was in the middle of the week in my parish in Korea fifty years ago that it occurred to me Jesus might want me to love my neighbor as though he or she were me. The next Sunday I had an hour and a half of confessions, two Masses, with not a sip of water. I was standing outside church after the second Mass, wanting the folks to go away, but pleased enough when some cute little girls came up to laugh with me. Then, an old woman came, tugging at the sleeve of my vestments .
She said, “Father, look at my bad eye.”
That was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. But then it came to me that maybe Jesus was testing me. I looked at her bad eye. It was like an egg fried hard on both sides.
Forcing myself to identify with her I thought of my own eyes that people said were nice; then I thought she too once had glorious eyes that everyone commented on. Still, I couldn’t do anything for her. I was broke. Some kids ran by, and I shooed them off. She’d fall on her face if they kicked that stick she was propping herself with.
Then, I remembered that the old lady lived in the next valley. With it having rained hard through the night the path on our side of the hill would have become a slippery gulley.
I said, “Granny, with the path over the hill as slippery as it must be, you were a hero making it over to Mass.”
That’s all she wanted. She said, “O Father, you understand.”