Wear Two Masks

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry, Jesus spends a fair amount of time answering questions. Many of these are posed by religious leaders trying to confound or trick him, but several are earnest questions from followers or would-be followers asking what they have to do to secure their place in the Kingdom of God. And in answering these questions, Jesus tends to follow what you might call a “theme.”

The theme derives from one of Jesus’s most famous answers (they’re all famous, I know), which comes in response to a Pharisee asking him which is the greatest commandment in Jewish law. Jesus replies that “the first and greatest commandment” is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” But he follows up with “and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” He then claims that all Jewish law and all of the pronouncements of the Prophets hang on these two commandments, which came to be known as the “Great Commandments.”

At first this seems straightforward — love God and love people — but there are a few radical elements baked into this response. The first is the total commitment that the First Commandment requires. All your heart, all your soul, all your mind. In other words, everything about you — everything that makes you you — is an instrument of love toward God. You can keep nothing for yourself. Your very self is devoted to God.

Obviously that’s aspirational and even somewhat abstract. Does God want us to sit in a room all day thinking about how much we love him? Certain reclusive religious devotees have followed this path, but Jesus’s unprompted follow-up both complicates and clarifies this. It’s no small thing that when asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus recited a single commandment as the “greatest,” and even identified it as such, but then followed up with a second commandment that’s “like” the greatest commandment — love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Why recite two commandments when one was requested and one provided the answer? And more specifically, how can the commandment to love your neighbor be like the commandment to love God? Your neighbor isn’t God. Or is he?

My reading of this is that because loving your neighbor is like loving God, and it’s unclear how we can express love toward a transcending being, Jesus is telling us to love God by loving our neighbors. In other words, take all that love for yourself that God demands for himself in the first commandment and redirect it toward your neighbor. What matters is subjugating your sense of self and directing the love elsewhere. This is crystallized in the famous passage in Matthew, presented a few chapters after the “Great Commandment” dialogue in that Gospel, in which Jesus proclaims that the way we treat other people, specifically the way we “the least of” our brothers and sisters, is the way we treat Jesus himself, and thus God.

But this is still somewhat abstract. What does it really mean to love your neighbor? This uncertainty (or feigned uncertainty) drives many of the questions that Jesus fields throughout his ministry. Indeed, one person asks the very basic question “Who is my neighbor?” in an effort to develop a list of people he has to be nice to. Jesus’s answer is, essentially, “everyone.” Another person asks how many times he’s expected to forgive his neighbor, and the answer is effectively “an infinite number of times, if that’s what it takes.”

What these questions have in common is that people are asking Jesus what they have to do to earn their way into Heaven. What’s the minimum? When can they stop trying? What lines can they draw to limit their commitment?

And the answer, which should be clear from the Great Commandments, is that there is no minimum because there is no maximum. There is no stopping, no line, and no limit. Loving your neighbor is a lifelong commitment and a full-time job. There’s no point at which you’re “done” being kind.

This is encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

In other words, don’t build a case for helping as little as possible; but try to help as much as possible. If someone wants something from you, give them more than they need. If someone asks you to wear a mask to slow the spread of disease, wear two.

And perhaps even more radically, this kindness isn’t a means to an end, but it is the end. Would anyone think that people spend their lives on Earth being kind just so they can stop being kind in Heaven? No. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of radical kindness. And it can be built on Earth through kindness.

Now, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to spend all their time doing nice things for other people. I don’t think that’s what Jesus was asking. I think it has more to do with attitude than physical acts. In fact, the word “repent,” so often presented as an imperative to prepare for the Kingdom of God, literally means to change one’s mind. Repentance is reorienting your brain so that you think differently, not just act differently.

What I think Jesus was asking people to do is to change the way they approached the concept of neighborly love. Instead of starting from the position of not doing anything and asking “How much must I do?”, Jesus asks us to start from the position that you’re not doing enough, and asking “How much can I do?” The difference between these two viewpoints has to do with the primacy of the self, the primacy that the Great Commandments stand against. The self wants to do as little as possible because doing depletes the self. But selflessness realizes that the depletion of the self is the gain of others.

This idea is certainly in conflict with things like individualism, personal responsibility, self-reliance and other modern ethical standards that have come to dominate, at least in theory, how many Americans approach the world. And this can be seen in the maddening politics surrounding the COVID pandemic. Millions of people ask “Why should I wear a mask? Or social distance? Or not visit my family for Thanksgiving?” The obvious answer, “It may help your neighbor,” isn’t a good enough reason to dent the self. And that’s a question of attitude that no amount of factual information can counter.

What the anti-maskers and other pandemic resistors remind me of is the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son. To recap the story in brief, a rich man has two sons, and the younger son leaves the home and squanders is inheritance while the older son remains and stays loyal to his father. The younger son — the titular prodigal son — comes crawling back after driving himself into poverty, and the father excitedly welcomes him home and throws a big party in his honor. The older son is miffed by this, failing to see why his feckless brother should be welcomed back into the family — with an expensive feast no less — while he stuck around doing the “right” thing instead of carousing like his brother.

This is a somewhat controversial story because it’s so easy to identify with the older son. The point of the story, in its simplest form, is that when people who have gone astray amend their ways we shouldn’t hold grudges against them and should focus on the positive future rather than the negative past. It’s also a (perhaps somewhat cynical) recruiting tool for the church, assuring those who may have strayed from the faith that they can always come back. The older son is presented as a foil to these lessons — a stubborn, pouty brat who knows nothing of grace and perhaps has no place in the Kingdom of God after all.

But I think there’s something more going on with the older son that’s easy to miss. When he objects to the kind treatment of his brother, when he sulks in his room while everyone else chows down on fatted calf, he’s depriving himself of joy. Not just the pleasure of having his family together again, not just sharing in the joy of his father and his brother, but a discrete, specific celebration that would welcome him as well if he would only change his mind. It’s easy to see the party itself as representing the Kingdom of God and the older brother rejecting it because he doesn’t want to repent. And in the end it’s the older son who suffers, not his father and certainly not his brother. By clinging to his primacy of self, the older son damages the very self he’s seeking to glorify.

The distrust, hostility, and suspicion of others, particularly of others in need, that flows naturally from American individualism operates the same way. And I think anti-maskers are making the same mistake as the older son. Instead of asking “What could I do that may help others?” (i.e., wearing a mask) and then doing it, they ask “What certainty do I have that wearing a mask will accomplish anything?” On other words, “If I’m not certain that this act of kindness (forgiving my neighbor more than necessary, loving someone who is not my neighbor) will earn me a place in the Kingdom of God, why should I do it?” To be sure, pandemic skepticism likely creates actual harm to others, unlike the older brother’s sulking in the parable, because the fewer people that take precautions the more people are at risk of illness and death. But the pandemic skeptics are also tying themselves up in the kind of suspicion and hostility that prevents them from enjoying the society they’re living in.

Of course, pandemic skepticism is only one example of this social atomization, one that’s particularly relevant in this moment. More broadly, the idolatry of individual liberty (which is inexplicably intertwined with American Protestantism, of all things, but that’s another story) is likely to ingrained in American society to give way to a widespread repentance toward selflessness any time soon. But I can hope that the American appetite for small acts of kindness — even if their efficacy isn’t rock-solid — can increase, and that we can learn to find joy in selflessness rather than resentment. Selfless kindness is still a radical idea, 2,000 years later. But in the end, loving your neighbor is being kind to yourself.

Lawyer and religion think-abouter.