Sunday, October 29, 2017

WHAT IS THE GREATEST COMMAND OF THE LAW? a homily for the Thirtieth Sunday, Year A (Matthew 22:34–40)

 The audio is here.
Last week we had the Pharisees and their the enemies the Herodians gathering together to oppose the Lord.  Last week our Lord told us that we are to put God first in our lives.  He told us that while we owe something to our Nation and the State our ultimate loyalty must be to God and to His Law.  As St Thomas More said “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first.”  “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first.”
It seems that this week we have the Pharisees gathering together with another of their enemies, the Sadducees.  The Pharisees were wealthy, devout Jews, men who could afford to spend time studying and observing not just the Law of the Old Testament but the vast body of teaching that had been built up around it.  They also accepted all the prophets and books that we know as the Old Testament.  They were scholars who really wanted to be holy but on their own terms. 
In contrast the Sadducees were the party associated with the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, a vast extended clan of hereditary clergymen.  They acknowledge no holy books but the Torah, that is, the first five books of our Old Testament.  To them the one and only prophet was Moses, the man who spoke to God face to face.  If a doctrine was not there in the Torah of Moses it was not to be believed which led to a lot of conflict with the Pharisees.  The Sadducees and the Pharisees were no more friends than chalk and cheese.
That was the context behind this simple question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  It is one of those questions that experts (or those who think they are experts) would like to argue and discuss ad infinitum.  Our Lord responds by citing the Shema Israel, “Hear O Israel”, the Jewish creed that they still recite everyday.  Indeed the Church also often cites it in her worship for we believe as they do.   Traditionally it is the first prayer an observant Jew will say when he wakes and the last he will say before sleep.  It is their fervent wish to make it their last words in this life.  It is the heart of the Jewish Faith.
Our Lord does not quote the whole of the Shema nor its first verse but its third line, its very heart.  The Lord God is to be the centre of our lives, of our whole being.  He then adds to it another commandment from the Law, from one of those first five books of the Old Testament, the book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.  This does not mean that we are to love our neighbour more than our true self but neither does it mean that we love him less.  It means that we should put as much energy into loving others as we do into loving our own selves!  Our Lord tells us that this latter commandment is akin to, and dependent on, the first.  Love of God and love of our neighbour are intimately linked and are at the heart of our Faith for both Jews and Christians.  Remember too that for our Lord love does not mean affection nor does it mean mere niceness.  For our Lord love means the total gift of one’s self in service of another.  If you want to know what love means for God looks like look at a crucifix.

Our Lord is telling us that we cannot sincerely love our neighbour if we do not sincerely love God and our love for our neighbour is not sincere if we are not prepared to aid that neighbour in his nakedness, his hunger, his thirst, in other words, his suffering.  We would not let ourselves go hungry if there was food, or thirsty if there was something good to drink, nor naked and cold if there were clothes, nor homeless if there was a place to stay.  If we would not do that to ourselves then we ought not to do it to our neighbour either, not if we claim to love God and hope to go to heaven.  That is the price of eternal life: to show one’s faith in Christ by one’s love for one’s neighbour in his need. 
Some of course will point to others and say ‘why doesn’t he do it?’ or ‘why don’t they?’  But our Lord does not ask you to answer for your neighbour.  Your neighbour will answer for himself before the throne of Judgment just as you and I will. It is there that we will answer for our neglect of those in need unless we take the chances we are given here.  If you want to wipe away your sins start by wiping away the tears of those who are hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, homeless, lonely or despised.  If you truly love God reach out to those who are in need and you will find that God is there before you, reaching out to you.
You see that this Law, this Faith of ours, is not some sentimental injunction to ‘be nice’ and not hurt anyone.  Our Lord is not a sentimentalist.  He is absolutely sincere in his command to us that we measure our love for Him by our love for our neighbour and our neighbour is anyone who is in need.  
Our Lord is not saying that He will love us if we love our neighbour but that if we love Him we will love our neighbour, that is, each person we meet but especially whoever is in need.   Why should we love God?  We should love Him because every breath is a gift from Him.  All that is is a gift from Him.  Not content with creating us and blessing us He has emptied Himself in sending the Son into the world to die for us so that we could be with Him forever in Heaven.  To borrow an image from Isaac Newton we are like children playing by the sea and all the vast ocean of the knowledge of God’s love remains unexplored and unappreciated before us.  It realizing this that made St Francis weep out loud “love is not loved.” 

Let us not be Pharisees trying to save ourselves or like the Sadducees living a minimalist Faith.  Our path to Heaven is not impossible, not with God’s grace, but it is hard and narrow.  It means letting go of many things we may cherish so that we might really and truly love God and really and truly love others.  Climbing a mountain is not easy but the view from the top makes it all worthwhile.  The view from Heaven will take our breath away and the way up there is through love for God and for our neighbour.

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