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The Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 31, 2021

Watch this homily! (Begins at 34:10)

    If the thought crossed your mind that you heard today’s first and third readings not very long ago, you were right. Very similar readings were in last year’s cycle of readings, although last year we got Matthew’s version of the Great Commandment and this year we got Mark’s. But is this overkill? It might seem so, but I prefer to think that the Church considers this teaching on the primacy of love of God and neighbor so important that it bears regular repetition. And who could argue with that!

     The familiar passage from Deuteronomy was bread and butter for every devout, believing Jew and the very heart of the Torah, the Law of God. Jewish people down through the centuries – right up to today – have repeated those words at least twice daily: “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.”

     A contemporary rabbi, commenting on these words from Deuteronomy, suggests that they are a prayer and more than a prayer. They are, he says, a ‘Pledge of Allegiance to God.’ So important are they that Deuteronomy mandated them to be worn on the wrist like a bracelet and even dangled from the forehead so they could always be before one’s eyes. And they were to be placed at the doorposts of every home – not unlike the way we place holy water fonts and make the sign of the cross at the doors of our churches. There’s simply no overdoing that prayer, that pledge. They are the heart and soul of the Jewish faith.

     And, of course, they are the heart and soul of our Christian faith, too. When asked by a Scribe what was the first of all the many commandments of the Law (and there were many: well over 600), Jesus unhesitatingly quoted the celebrated passage from Deuteronomy, and then added words from the Book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” By putting those two together – even though he numbered them “first” and “second,” Jesus was saying that the two commandments are really only one – that love of God and love of neighbor cannot be separated.

     The writer of the New Testament First Letter of John makes this teaching even more 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.”

     My friends, in the reading from Deuteronomy, it was Moses who set before the people the heart of the Law, the heart of their faith. In the gospel, it’s Jesus who sets the same before us and the stakes are high, very high: we will either be lovers or liars.

     Mother Teresa – Saint Mother Teresa - perhaps more than any believer of modern times, found a way to make all this very real, a way to translate it into the most human of terms. She often spoke about finding the face of Jesus in what she called “his most distressing disguises.” To make the point, she once shared an experience she had on a trip to Venezuela.

     It seems a wealthy family had given Mother Teresa’s community some land on which to build a home for poor orphaned children. When she went to thank her benefactors, they introduced her to their children. The eldest was seriously disabled and disfigured and couldn’t speak. “What is his name?” she asked the mother. The mother, with a beautiful smile on her face, said “We call him ‘Professor, Professor of Love’ because he is teaching us all the time how to love.” Later, Mother Teresa reflected on this: “Professor of Love,” they called their son, so terribly disabled, so disfigured. And so he was. He was teaching all the time.”

     I meet “professors of love” rather regularly and I suspect you do, too, but I don’t always think of them in this way and their lesson is lost. I think, for instance, of the time I got stopped on the street by a homeless fellow. I was in a hurry as I too often am, and he was anything but, and he had a story he was intent on sharing with me. Before long, I broke in to tell him I was in a hurry and I asked him if he needed some money. He looked me right in the eye and said, “I guess I could use a little, but I’d rather talk…!”

     I’ve often thought of that “professor of love” and, in my better moments I thank him for the powerful lesson he taught me about the two Great Commandments.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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