There is an old story about two pilgrims traveling to a monastery high up in the mountains of Tibet. A storm was approaching and they made their way as quickly as possible along the narrow and treacherous paths.
While negotiating one such path they heard a voice calling out for help. Another pilgrim had slipped from the trail and fallen into a deep chasm. The first pilgrim stopped and peered into the darkness. He couldn’t see the trapped man but he could hear him calling out in desperation.
“We should help him,” said the first pilgrim.
“No,” said the second, “if we stop we will be trapped by the storm and we will all die.”
The second pilgrim continued on his way while the first remained on the edge of the trail looking down into the darkness of the chasm. Quickly he resolved to help the trapped pilgrim. He secured a rope to a rock and lowered himself down. The fallen pilgrim suffered a broken leg and it took much time and effort to get him onto the trail.
By then the storm had arrived in full force. Bitter wind was driving freezing snow into snowdrifts all around them. They could barely see a few feet in front of them. The first pilgrim supported the injured man as best he could and they continued on their way to the monastery.
After what seemed like hours they finally saw the lights ahead of them promising refuge. As they hobbled toward the gates they passed the body of the second pilgrim, frozen just a few yards from safety. He had tripped and been knocked unconscious. Without the companionship and help of the first pilgrim, he froze to death.
What does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves?
Paul’s comments on love are given in the context of justice. His words preceding today’s readings tell us “Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:7).
This differs from the old covenant wherein the Law was the means of justice.
Jesus makes all things new and Paul tells us “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Thus it is out of love that we pursue justice. Love for God and love for neighbor.
This love is not optional. It is not like romantic love or brotherly love, which allows us to choose those on whom we bestow it. This is the self-sacrificing love of God for man. This type of love we are obligated to reciprocate and practice among one another. It is this “agape” love that motivates us to seek out those who have taken themselves out of communion with God and His church and try to win them back.
If we truly practice this love and hold it within our hearts then how can we not reach out to minister to our brothers and sisters, especially those who have removed themselves from our communion? We are in fact expected to do so.
Justice then, is our moral imperative; it is our goal. Love is the means by which we achieve it.