Sunday, October 26, 2008

Year A 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Exo. 22,20-26; Ps. 18,2-4.47.51; 1 Thess. 1,5c-10; Matt. 22,34-40

The words of our Lord from today’s Gospel bear repeating: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matt. 22,37-40). These words sum up our faith whole and entire.

For observant Jews there are 613 mitzvot, or, specific requirements of the law. Too often, as Christians, we belittle the commitment of observant Jews. Especially when we read passages such as this one, in which our Lord is disputing with observant Jews, we must not forget that he was one of them. Our all too easy dismissal of the scribes and Pharisees reveals a mistaken way of looking at things. The mistake we make is by believing that Jesus calls on us to do nothing and gives us no concrete requirements to carry out.

It is important for us to recognize that the answer Jesus gives to the scholar of the law is a faithful Jewish answer. He does not belittle obedience to the law by means of observing the mitzvot. His answers are from the law. The commandment to love God comes from the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, which is the fundamental Jewish profession of faith, the Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil- "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates" (Deut. 6,4-9).

The second commandment that Jesus gives when asked by the scholar for one is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. This, too, is from the law, the Book of Leviticus (Lev. 19,18). Our Lord is not teaching anything new to his hearers. Neither is he just throwing in a bonus commandment, going the extra mile, as it were. He is showing us that while these two commandments are distinct, they are so closely bound together that the second is “like” the first. In other words, you cannot have one without the other. What is revolutionary in Jesus’ teaching is that one’s neighbor is inclusive of any person you encounter, not just your fellow Jew, or your fellow Catholic. More particularly, your neighbor is your fellow human being, especially the one who needs your help. In all this our Lord is explaining not just the intention that should give rise to adherence to the law, but the very reason for the law.

What Jesus requires of those who would follow him makes observing 613 written rules look easy by comparison. By substituting the words “with all your mind” for the words “with all your strength” in the passage from Deuteronomy, he is calling for nothing less than the commitment of our entire being and not merely for a sentimental attachment, or a superficial allegiance. The trouble is not with rules, it is with us! As Catholics, we can hardly dismiss rules and keep a straight face. We have plenty of rules, like fasting for one hour before Mass and observing Fridays as penitential days, which we still normatively do by abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals, and not just during Lent, when we are obligated to do so. If we choose not to abstain from meat, we are to perform some act of charity as a substitute. We also have the five the precepts of the church:

1) to attend Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation and to refrain from work and activities which could impede the sanctification of those days;

2) to confess one's sins, receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once each year;

3) to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season;

4) to abstain from eating meat and to observe the days of fasting established by the Church;

5) to help to provide for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability” (Compendium, par. 432).

It is certainly true that rules can be observed in a lifeless and mechanical manner. It is also true that they can be observed in a self-righteous way by worrying more about looking holy than being holy, or being more concerned about how others observe them than how we do. But these five precepts are given in order “to guarantee for [us] the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer, the sacramental life, moral commitment and growth in love of God and neighbor” (Compendium, par. 431). In other words, rules and injunctions are not ends, but means to the end of perfecting us in love, which is nothing short of fulfilling the purpose of our existence. This is the very point Jesus is seeking to make in today’s Gospel.

Being perfected in love only happens through obedience. It is only through obedience that our will is conformed to God’s will, as Jesus showed us by his being obedient to the Father, even to the point of allowing himself to be unjustly killed. Love is not just the reason for the law. Love is the reason that anything exists at all. Love is why Christ, when we showed we were incapable of observing the law, humbled himself to share our humanity, died and rose from the dead. Love is not a feeling, but an act of the will, a choice we make, a choice we are called to make many times everyday, in all our actions and interactions.

Our first reading gives us some concrete and timeless ways to love our neighbor. These are particularly relevant with our election a little more than week a way. First, we are to look after the alien, the foreigner, in our midst. Second, we are to provide for the widow and the orphan. Thirdly, a lesson we are learning the hard way and on massive scale, due to the economic meltdown caused by issuing so many sub-prime mortgages to unsuspecting borrowers, not to loan money to those who cannot afford to repay it, especially at extortionist rates, motivated by greed. When we act unjustly in any of these ways, the Lord, in his compassion, hears the cry of the oppressed and his wrath is kindled.

St. Paul in our second reading, taken from First Thessalonians, which is probably the first book of the New Testament to be written, sees them as a community on fire with the love of God in Christ, possessed by the Holy Spirit, spilling over in love of their neighbors. They were imitators of Christ and received “the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that [they] became a model for all the believers” (1 Thess. 1,6). From them “the word of the Lord … sounded forth,” not only in their immediate vicinity, but “in every place [their] faith in God [went]” (1 Thess 1,8). In other words, wherever members of this eucharistic community went, the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus became incarnate once again.

We gather around this altar to receive God’s love poured out for us in the Paschal mystery. From here we are sent forth to share the love we receive with everyone we encounter by living in specifically Christian way. In order to do this we have to be on fire with passion for God and our neighbor that Christ, through us, may reach him/her. My sisters and brothers in Christ, God depends on us to accomplish his purpose in and for the world, on our love, manifested in our distinct way of living, a way of life we are free to choose or reject, the choice is ours everyday.

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