Perhaps today more than ever before we can see how religion can be a blessing and how it can be a curse; how religion can be the inspiration for the greatest efforts at promoting the wellbeing of humanity and how it can be a tool of violence and hatred.
Indeed divisions today are far less between religion than within religions - between those on the one hand who exploit religion for adversarial purpose; and those on the other, who are inspired by their respective religious heritage to reach out to others in friendship and respect both within and beyond one’s own communities.
Although we see today more than ever, terrible atrocities performed in the name of religion; those of us involved in interreligious engagement can witness to the fact that never before in the history of humankind has there been so much communication, collaboration and cooperation between people of different religious backgrounds, for the benefit of society at large.
The sages of the Talmud (tractate Gittin ) almost two thousand years ago declared that the whole of Torah – the whole of Judaism – is for the sake of peace; and the text goes on to describe “the ways of peace”. These require of us for example to “visit the sick of others, even of heathens; bury their dead with ours; and provide for their poor amidst our own – (all) for the sake of “the ways of Peace”.
Maimonides, in his code of Jewish practice ( Yad Hahazakah, "Laws of Kings," Ch. I0, sect. 1l), quotes this text and gives two Scriptural verses in support:-
“behold it is stated “and His mercies are extended to all His creatures (Psalm l45, v. 9) and it is stated ”(the Torah’s) ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace.”(Proverbs 3 v. l7)
The latter of these verses from the Book of Proverbs, is stated in the original Talmudic text, confirming that the goal of religion is peace, not only among ourselves but above all in relation to those different from ourselves; and implying that if our actions do not promote peace, then we are not being true to our religion.
However, why does Maimonides add the verse from Psalm 145 “His mercies extend to all His creatures”?
Maimonides is referring here to the theological impulse for the right conduct; namely, the sublime Torah teachings of Imitatio Dei (Leviticus l9 v. l): “to cleave to the Lord” (Deuteronomy l0 v. 20) and “to walk in His Ways” (Deuteronomy l3 v. 5).
Jewish tradition understands the latter to mean emulating – to the extent of our human ability – the Divine Attributes of mercy, loving-kindness, justice, truthfulness and forgiveness (cf. Exodus 34 v. 6). In the words of Abba Shaul, “Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so you be gracious and compassionate” (Mekhilta, Canticles 3).
Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud expounds, “Just as the Lord clothes the naked, as He
did with Adam and Eve, so you clothe the naked. Just as the Lord visited the sick, as He
did with Abraham, so you visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforts the bereaved, as he did
with Isaac, so you comfort the bereaved. Just as the Lord buries the dead, as He did with
Moses, so you bury the dead” (Tractate Sotah l4a).
Accordingly, Maimonides is reminding us that just as God’s “compassion extends to all
His creatures”, so we must emulate such compassion to all, especially (as the Torah itself
emphasises) towards the vulnerable – and not only the vulnerable of our own community,
the poor, the orphan, and the widow; but also and in particular – the stranger, people from other communities. How we behave towards those different from us, is the true test of whether or not we pursue the ways of peace; and these ways of peace are the Divine paths.
We are only truly religious when we walk in His ways; when we pursue these paths to peace.
Accordingly those who exploit religion to justify alienation, hatred, hostility and violence, do not truly love God. They are the ultimate enemies of God and religion, serving Satanic agendas.
For the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, the prototype of the ethical monotheist who walks in the Divine paths is Abraham .
In Genesis 18:19, God refers to Abraham declaring “for I have known him that he will command his household and his children after him that they observe the Way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice.” Accordingly, Abraham is referred to in our traditions as “the friend, of God” or more precisely in the words of the prophet Isaiah (41:.8) as “Abraham who loves me” - Abraham the lover of God.
Abraham represents the essential prerequisite for true peace, the spirit of hospitality
Genesis 18 v.1 describes Abraham as “sitting at the entry to his tent in the heat of the day” looking out for wayfarers to offer hospitality, when “he lifts up his eyes and sees and behold three men are standing before him.” Abraham subsequently discovers that they are Divine messengers, angels, come to inform him of the Divine blessing of progeny.
Two of these messengers go on to Sodom to warn the city of its pending destruction and to save Lot and his family. And the next chapter of Genesis begins “and the two angels came to Sodom”.
A Hassidic master asked why they are referred to as just “men” regarding Abraham, but when they go to Sodom they are referred to as angels?
The rabbi’s answer was that this was because there was no need for the angels to reveal themselves as such, for Abraham saw the angel in every person – every human being created in the Divine Image.
Hospitality expresses a reaching out, by which we initiate a welcome to the other.
This of course includes being able to respond to the pain and pleas for
justice and security of the other. Above all, it means respecting his or her human dignity.
Reaching out as people of faith and in the name of our respective faiths is especially important. It is thereby that we can overcome the mutual alienation that bedevils us, and be true to the values and example of Abraham our common Father.
The community of Sant Egidio is not only the bearer of the torch of the spirit of Assisi, it is the embodiment of the religious striving for peace through its work with the vulnerable and the needy, the stranger and the wayfarer ;and through the spirit of hospitality which is expressed in these annual meetings - not just physical hospitality but above all the psycho-spiritual hospitality of acceptance and respect (not to mention its work for reconciliation and peace in international relations.) It thus serves us all as inspiration to follow these Divine paths of peace that are not only possible, but are the sublime goal and telos of our faith traditions.
In the beautiful words of Saint John Paul II, “we Christians, Jews and Muslims as the children of Abraham are called to be a blessing to the world. In order to be such, we must first be a blessing to one another.”
Indeed may we succeed in being a blessing of peace to one another and being a blessing of peace to our whole world.