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The 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 4, 2018


I couldn’t read that passage from Deuteronomy, today’s first reading, without thinking of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are reeling from the unspeakable, hate-inspired tragedy that occurred last weekend in Pittsburgh. The familiar words from Deuteronomy, the so-called “Shema Israel,” are at the very heart of the Torah, the law of God. They are the most important prayer, the central creed, the pledge of allegiance, if you will, of every Jew. “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.”

     Down through the centuries right to this day, devout Jews have greeted each morning with those words, and ended each day with them. And each one of those eleven people so brutally shot down last Saturday would have prayed them that morning, and no doubt those words would have been on their lips as they entered the synagogue for worship on that fateful Sabbath.

     And, of course, we know that those same words were at the very heart of the faith of Jesus. They were on his lips, too--every day and many times a day--and they were deep in his heart. I couldn’t help thinking of that this past Monday evening when I joined thousands of people over at Temple de Hirsch Sinai for an interfaith service of remembrance for the victims of the Tree of Life massacre. As I walked into the temple and was warmly welcomed by my Rabbi friends, I couldn’t help but be struck by how closely linked in faith we are with our Jewish brothers and sisters. Our faith is nothing without theirs. We wouldn’t have a faith were it not for them.

     So how is it that anti-Semitism in one form or another has been such a constant among Christians down through the ages?  This is not the place to explore the causes. This is not a history class. But I do need to acknowledge the fact and then to pose the question: how is it possible for Christians to harbor hatred against Jewish people when the God we worship and love is one and the same? And how can such sentiments still have any place in our society?

     The question becomes even more pointed in light of the teaching of Jesus in today’s passage from Mark’s gospel. When asked by a Scribe which was the first of all the commandments of the Law (there were many), Jesus, not surprisingly, answered by quoting the celebrated passage from Deuteronomy that puts love of God before all else, and he then added words from the Book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” By linking those two commandments so closely, Jesus was saying that the two are really one: that there simply cannot be love of God without love of neighbor.

     The First Letter of John in the New Testament makes this teaching explicit: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother or sister, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  This is the command we have from Jesus: Whoever loves God must also love his brother or sister.”

     But we know all this, don’t we! We know it well. And yet, there are times when we can piously protest our love for God while at the same time ignoring or neglecting or even despising our neighbor. And too often we fail to see how totally incongruous this is. That’s the reality, and it’s bad enough, but gone unchecked, it is this utterly irrational and contradictory separation of love of God from love of neighbor which, down through the ages, has grown like a cancer, and given rise to the kind of vicious anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and that reared its ugly head last week in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

     What was in the twisted mind of that gunman did not come out of thin air: it came from a whole sorry history of hatred for Jews that, sad to say, got its start within the Christian church. And these days it’s getting fanned into flame by the hate speech, fear mongering, and out-of-control rhetoric that have become more and more a part of our national political discourse. And, my friends, you know and I know that this is the absolute antithesis of our Christian faith; it is a flagrant denial of the teaching of Jesus.

     So important was that celebrated passage about love for God that Deuteronomy instructed the people to write it down, to wear it around their wrist like a bracelet, and even to dangle it from their forehead so it could always be before their eyes. And they were also to place it at the doorpost of their home where they could reverently touch it upon entering and leaving. Would that the two Great Commandments that Jesus gave us were as central to our faith life; would that they were never from us, always before our eyes and deep within our hearts!

     My friends, I find considerable irony in the fact that the name of the synagogue that was targeted last Saturday morning was Tree of Life. Tree of Life. Tragically, the tree of life has been struck at the root, but we must not let that be the end of the story. We must with every bit of love, hope, wisdom, and resolve we can summon, plant new trees where life, not death, will get the last word.

Father Michael G. Ryan




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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