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The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 29, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 40:50)

    Last Sunday we had the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus with their disingenuous question about paying taxes to Caesar; today they’re at it again, testing him with their question about which of the commandments is the greatest. In both cases, Jesus shows himself to be more than their match.

     You’ll pardon me, I hope, if I tell a story I’ve shared with you before. It’s a story I like – a true one that took place years ago when I was attending a week-long seminar on Canon Law at the University of San Francisco (I’m sure you can imagine what a stimulating week that was!). One afternoon I was walking across the campus and got talking with a young woman who asked me why I was there. 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 something about Church law. Did the Church have many laws, 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 by more than 600 – we’d gone from 2400 laws to fewer than 1800. I said that with a certain ring of satisfaction in my voice because it sounded like progress to me. Not to my young friend, however. She looked me in the eye, and asked, "How come Jesus only had two?!"

     Now, I might have been able to give her a fairly cogent answer if I had had the time and she the patience, but I preferred simply to say "touche!" To be honest, I was delighted by her question. It told me that she knew some Scripture and that she knew the heart of Jesus' teaching. Not everyone does. And too often, it’s the religious "professionals" who can get lost in a forest of rules and regulations. That’s true now, and it was true in Jesus’ time.

     The religious professionals in his time had a field day with some 613 individual precepts that made up the Torah, the Law of God. 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 prioritized the laws was to know what school he belonged to.

     In today's passage from Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus the Rabbi was asked by some Pharisees which commandment of the Law was the greatest, he allied himself with a particular school that 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 might be 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 if you don’t love your neighbor, you don’t love God.

     I said this was "radical". It is. We may have heard it so often that it seems rather commonplace. 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 than night from day, in no sense can they be separated.

     The implications are enormous. Religion is not only vertical, it is horizontal. Religion is about Mass and the sacraments, for sure, but it is just as much about the way we treat each other. It’s about acceptance, patience, tolerance, forgiveness; it’s about reaching out to the homeless and the hurting, the helpless, and the hopeless. It’s about putting ourselves and our resources on the line for others. It’s even about how we vote. Religion is loving God and neighbor, it’s about 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.

     Let me conclude with a little story from the Sufi mystical tradition. 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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