The story goes that once, about a hundred years before Jesus’ time, a gentile wise-guy, put this proposition to Rabbi Shammai: ‘if you can teach me the Law, the Torah, while I stand on one leg I will become a Jew’. Rabbi Shammai, knowing a con when he hears one, sends him away with a flea in his ear. So the foreigner tries out his joke again, this time on Shammai’s rival, Rabbi Hillel. ‘Rabbi, if you can teach me the Torah while I stand on one leg I will become a Jew’. Hillel, always ready for a challenge, got him to stand on one leg and said, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.’ And it is said that is what he did. … ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour’.
These two Rabbis were well known for their differences of opinion. Shammai taught that when it came to the shema—hear O Israel…—one should take scripture seriously and say it in the evening while lying down and in the morning recite it standing. Hillel’s opinion: recite shema doing whatever you are doing for it must fill your whole life, walking, sitting, working, playing: ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’
So we are to love God with our every breath—all our soul, mind and strength—and love our neighbour as ourselves. … But who is our neighbour? Don’t you want to follow Luke’s gospel and ask that? The scribe here in Mark seems to know already but Luke uses him as a foil to set up Jesus’ great parable of the prodigal son: an enigmatic answer to the question. Who is my neighbour and how do I love her? You’ll not be surprised to hear that Rabbi Hillel had something pithy to say on the subject: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what good am I? … If not me, who? If not now, when?’
Aren’t those last two questions what ground and anchor our love for God and our love for others: ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’
June 3rd, 2004