What is morality? Simply stated, morality is doing what is good and avoiding what is evil. In today’s Gospel, Jesus defines morality: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). These ways of defining morality prompt two questions. The first question is, “What is good and what is evil?”
It’s evident that we are often capable of discerning what is are good and what is evil, but good and evil are not clear to us in every instance, far from it. Our first reading from Exodus gives us three examples of things that are good, which means they are not only are things we ought to do but, as Christians, things we must do.
The first of these is how we are to treat aliens among us, be they immigrants or refugees. Many Catholics, despite the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Church’s magisterium, be it the Pope, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or our own bishop, see this as a matter of prudential judgment, by which they take it to be optional.
I have heard people who should know better insisting that welcoming immigrants and refugees is not biblical. Jesus recapitulated in his own life the history of Israel so that he could do for Israel what the chosen people were not willing or able to for themselves. Hence, along with Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, he was a refugee in Egypt, fleeing Herod’s terror. As the Church, we are God’s Pilgrim People, making our pilgrimage through time to the new Jerusalem.
In this context, it is important to note that the word “Hebrew” means foreigner. If Israel is made up of Hebrews and the Church is the new and true Israel, then we, like Israel of old, are aliens, a people on the way. It would difficult to find something more biblical than welcoming immigrants and refugees.
In addition to political refugees, our country now has many economic refugees. Economic refugees are people who come to our country, like most of our ancestors did, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Whether it refers to the Italians, the Irish, or to people from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, in the United States there has always been a discernible strain of anti-Catholicism in the rhetoric and action of so-called nativists.
Secondly, our first reading points out the importance of caring for widows and orphans. This is the biblical language for caring for those in need. Doing this is imperative for Christians. It is false to say there was no social safety net in ancient Israel. The social safety net was to be society itself. Israelite society was supposed to be the kingdom of God, but it was often deformed into something else entirely. This is why time and again Israel was rebuked by God through the prophets for not doing this. If Scripture is a reliable guide, perhaps more than anything, the refusal to care for those in need kindles God’s wrath.
In God’s eyes, the greatness of a nation is not its wealth or military might. From the divine perspective, a nation’s greatness lies in how it cares for the young, the elderly, the ill, the disadvantaged, and the immigrant. Our reading from Exodus tells us what it is that gets in the way of caring for those in need: greed. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Greed is when you put your excess before the needs of others.
Original sin was humanity’s desire to displace God in order to determine for ourselves what is good and evil. Even when we concede that in determining for ourselves what is good and evil we will not necessarily always choose evil, odds are sooner rather than later we will get it wrong. Nonetheless, God permits us the freedom to attempt to dethrone him and enthrone ourselves. God does not launch lightning bolts from the sky when we choose evil, either knowingly or in the mistaken belief that it is good. Why? Because God loves us and so he would not cause us to live under such an imminent threat, which would practically force us to be good out of fear, not love.
Christ showed us that the only criterion by which to make moral judgments is love. God is love (1 John 4:8.16). It is because God is love that Christ became incarnate. Holiness consists in nothing other than loving perfectly, like Christ.
The second question that arises from Jesus’s definition of morality is- Who is my neighbor? In St. Luke’s parallel account of today’s Gospel, when Jesus was asked the same question immediately after defining morality as love, his response was to teach the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). The take-away from that parable is- my neighbor is not my fellow Israelite (or Catholic), not the person most like me; my neighbor is the person in need, the one I can help.
We are beggars. Acknowledging our poverty is what brings us to this table. Coming together makes us companions. “Companion” literally means “bread fellow.” Companions are those who share bread. After sharing the bread from this table, we are sent forth to share it with those who are hungry.
Morality cannot be reduced to mere “personal morality.” Adherents of such a morality hold, either explicitly or implicitly, that it is possible to achieve holiness without reference to or regard for their neighbor. This is an anti-Christian morality. Our Gospel today is a further fleshing out of something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, namely the Golden Rule, which bids us “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12). What connects these two teachings in Matthew's Gospel is how Jesus ends them. He ends them by saying to observe these is to obey the law and the prophets. The chapter of 1 John in which we twice read “God is love,” ends with these words:
If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20-21)