29 October 2017

Homily - 29 October 2017 - The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

We have rather grown into the habit of calling ourselves Christians without giving a great deal thought to what it means to bear the name of Christ. Likewise, we often think of ourselves as disciples of Jesus, but give little thought to what it means to be one. Our English word disciple has the same root as discipline. Both come from the Latin word discipulus, meaning a student or learner; discipulus itself comes from discere, meaning to learn. A disciple, then, is a follower in the sense that he or she is a student who follows the teachings of a learned man; the disciples of Christ follow him who is the great "Master and Teacher" (John 13:13). Can it be said of us who bear the name of Christian that we follow the teachings of Jesus?

Throughout the period of his earthly ministry, the Pharisees and the Sadducees followed Jesus not so much because they wanted to learn from him; they did not want to be his disciples, but instead to test him (cf. Matthew 22:35). “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”, one of them asked him. Though the Pharisees are often berated in homilies for attempting to trap Jesus, this is not the case with this question; it was a test, yes, but not a trap. “This is not a trick question but is designed to see if the Galilean preacher has the knowledge necessary to be teaching others about God and his will for their lives” (Matthew 22:36).[1] It was an attempt to discover if Jesus was worth following or not.

With his answer to this question, Jesus cites two important verses from the Old Testament. First, he refers to the great Schema from the Book of Deuteronomy, when Moses said to the people: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Second, he refers to another part of the law which Moses gave to the people: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). By joining these two commands together, Jesus not only shows the Pharisees that he does have the knowledge necessary to teach others about God, but also that he has taken his rightful place upon the seat of Moses as both teacher and law-giver (cf. Matthew 23:2).

Christ Pantocrater. Uncial detail from the Badische Landesbibliothek, Germany.
Just after he gave them this answer, Jesus posed a question to them, a question to which “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions,” lest he be shown a greater teacher than they (Matthew 22:46). The Pharisees were content to hear his answers, but were not prepared to take his answers to heart; they were not prepared to learn from him and to follow him.

Saint Luke records another occasion on which the Lord Jesus gave this answer in response to a question from one of those versed in the law. He agreed with Jesus’ answer, but “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). It was, to be sure, a risky question, one Jesus answered with the parable of the good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:30-37). In the end, as he so often does, Jesus turned the question around and put the focus on the man asking the question: “Which of these three,” Jesus asked him, “proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers” (Luke 10:36)? The man answered Jesus’ question correctly but failed to keep his final exhortation to “go and do likewise” because Jesus’ response deeply challenged the man’s outlook upon the world; he, too, came to Jesus to seek his answers, but not to give him his heart (Luke 10:37).

Do we not ask the same question of Jesus in an attempt to justify ourselves before God? Do we not also ask rhetorically, “And who is my neighbor?”, in the attempt to convince ourselves that we are good people, that because we have helped this person or that person that we have done enough? To us, too, Jesus asks, “Which of these … proved neighbor…?” and commands us, “go and do likewise,” yet still we hesitate to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The man who first asked that question of Jesus has less blame than us, for he had a different understanding of who his neighbor was than we do.

Until that time, the concept of “neighbor” was understood as referring essentially to one’s own countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor. The concept of “neighbor” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now… [W]e should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.[2]

Now that Jesus has come and taught us, now that we have heard his teaching with authority, our responsibility for our neighbor, both near and far, is greater (cf. Matthew 7:29).

As Christians in these United States of America, we often do well caring our neighbors who are far away, but we are not always so keen to care for our neighbors at our doorstep, which is why so many either wince at or ignore the Lord’s command we heard just a few moments ago: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Many do not like these words, true though they be, because we all too often allow our politics to dictate our faith rather than allow our faith to dictate our politics, as is both right and just.

Because “the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” to love both God and neighbor, “no other commandment of the Bible is properly observed if either one of these is transgressed or compromised, for the aim of all divine Scripture is to bring us out of ourselves to love and serve God and our fellow human beings.”[3] Consequently, “closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God.”[4] Rather than closing our eyes to our neighbors both near and far, we should strive to imitate Saint Paul, from whose mouth “the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place [his] faith in God [went] forth” (I Thessalonians 1:8). The word of the Lord sounded forth from his mouth because he loved God and neighbor. Does the same word of the Lord also sound forth from our mouths? Do we love God and neighbor in the same way?

Saint Paul’s preaching of the Gospel was sometimes formal, as in his speech at the Areopagus, but it was also often informal, as when he sat making tents in the marketplace (cf. Acts 17:22 and 18:3). So it is with and you me; our preaching must sometimes be formal, but it must frequently be informal as well. This is why Pope Francis is so keen to remind us that

there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbors or complete strangers. This is the informal preaching which takes place in the middle of a conversation… Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.[5]

It can and should happen wherever and whenever someone needs to hear or be reminded of what the Lord God himself tells us: “If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:26). Jesus showed his compassion for us when he ascended the throne of his Cross to show us just how much he loves us.

The sight of the Lord’s Cross should stir each of our hearts to an ever-deeper love of God and contrition for our sins in gratitude for his merciful love toward us poor sinners. The recognition of the immensity of this love should move us toward our neighbors, to invite and encourage them “to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath” (I Thessalonians 1:9-10). May we, then, love God and neighbor in this way, so as to truly be his disciples by following him unreservedly and by conforming ourselves to his way of loving until he is formed in us (cf. Galatians 4:19). Amen.

[1] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 288.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 15.
[3] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 289.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 16.
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 127.

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