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The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 29, 2017

     After my three weeks way and three weeks of stellar substitutes in this pulpit, you’d think I’d have something fresh and new to say this morning. But I didn’t go on vacation to work on homilies! So if what I have to say sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because you were listening when I preached on these texts a few years ago!

     Back in the 1970’s I attended a seminar on Canon Law at the University of San Francisco (you can probably guess what a stimulating event that was!). One afternoon I was walking across the campus and got talking with a young woman who asked me what brought me to the campus.  When I told her I was attending a workshop on Church Law, I figured the conversation would end there.  But it didn’t – quite.  She wanted to know a little about Church law.  Did the Church have many of them, she asked? I told her that there were quite a few but not nearly as many as there used to be.  A recent revision, I told her, had trimmed the total number of laws by more than 600 – we’d gone from 2400 to fewer than 1800.  I think I said that with a certain amount of satisfaction. It sounded like progress to me.  Not to my young friend, however. She stopped dead in her tracks, looked me in the eye, and asked, "How come Jesus only had two?!"

     Now, I think I could have given her a fairly cogent answer if I had had the time and she the patience, but I didn’t and I doubt she did, either, and to be honest, I was delighted by her question. She clearly knew some Scripture and, more importantly, she knew the heart of Jesus' teaching.  Not everyone does. And sometimes it’s the religious "professionals" who do not. I think, for instance, of some of Pope Francis’ more harsh and outspoken critics who get lost among the trees of tradition and seem to miss the whole forest of God’s mercy and love. They love the letter of the law and lose sight of human struggles and human situations. And they refuse to allow themselves to be surprised by the God of surprises.

     The religious professionals of Jesus' day were inclined to do the same. They had a field day with some 613 individual precepts that made up the Torah, the Law. Rabbis loved to debate the relative importance of each precept, and there was more than one school of thought. In fact, to know how a particular rabbi summarized the Law was to know what school he belonged to.

     In today's passage from Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus the Rabbi was approached by some lawyers and asked his opinion on this matter he allied himself with a particular school, the one which taught that the whole Law could be summarized by just two scriptural passages: one from the Book of Deuteronomy, the other from the Book of Leviticus.  A word about each of those.

     The first, from Deuteronomy, contained words that were on the lips of a devout Jew every day and many times a day (a little like the Sign of the Cross, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Hail Mary is on ours): "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone!  Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."  That, Jesus told the lawyer, was the first commandment.  And then he cited the Book of Leviticus, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  That, he said, was the second commandment and (and this is very important) – he told him that it was like the first.

     Scholars tell us that what was unique about Jesus' answer to the Lawyer was not his citing of the two commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Other Rabbis did that.  What was unique was the way Jesus joined -- you might say merged -- those two commandments, giving them equal footing. Neither could stand alone, he said: you really couldn't have the one without the other.  And that was not only new, it was radical. Jesus was saying you don’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor.

     I called this "radical".  It is.  We may be so used to the idea that it seems rather commonplace to us.  But radical it is.  For this reason: it puts God and human beings together in the same breath, the same sentence.  Jesus is saying that God and human beings made in God’s image and likeness, are so one, so intertwined and interconnected that, even though their difference be greater by far than night is from day, nonetheless they cannot be separated.

     The implications are enormous. Religion is not only vertical, it is horizontal. Religion for us is about Mass and the sacraments, for sure, but it is also about the way we treat one another. It’s about love, acceptance, patience and forgiveness within our families, and for everyone in our families without exception; and for us in this parish, it’s about the way we welcome the homeless, the hurting, and the helpless, and the hopeless. Religion is not one or the other, it’s both. Religion means seeking and finding our identity in the other -- in God who is the Totally Other, and in our sisters and brothers who are created in God's image and likeness.

     I conclude with a little story from the Sufi mystical tradition of the East.  One day a holy monk sat in the marketplace and watched the crippled, the beggars, and the beaten go by.  Seeing them, the holy monk went down into deep prayer and cried, "Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?"  And out of the long silence God said, "I did do something about them.  I made you!"

Father Michael G. Ryan





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