30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (link to readings)
Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Today’s Gospel reading connects beautifully to the readings we’ve had the last few weeks. What is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” In other words, render unto God what belongs to God. We can be Caesar’s good servants because we are God’s first. All these are different ways Jesus is reminding us of that first and greatest commandment: First, things first, and God is always first, in every way, with all of our being.
How do we respond and comply to this first and greatest command? By keeping the Lord’s Day holy and set apart. By actively participating in the holy sacrifice of prayer and worship that is the Mass, on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. By daily and frequent prayer and reading with the holy scriptures. By praying the rosary and participating in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as much as reasonably possible. By tithing our income. By volunteering and participating in the Church’s ministries, groups, and events. By living one’s life in perfect conformity with the truth God reveals to us in his word and his Church. And by regularly reconciling with God and his Church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation whenever one falls into mortal sin. Essentially, uniting your will, your mind, your heart, your soul, to God through Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Do that, and you will live.
In Jesus’ time, it was common for scholars of the law, the scribes, to test an unknown rabbi and their interpretation of the law by asking them to choose which of the hundreds of laws was the most important. Jesus didn’t quote any of those hundreds of laws. He quoted the Shema, the verse of Deuteronomy that faithful Jews recited three times every day, which everyone knew, the way we know the Our Father. The full text of the Shema says, “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. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In other words, filling one’s life with God’s presence and truth at all times, in all places, in all conversations, including diligently passing this on to the children of each generation. Just as the Our Father is the perfect prayer, the Shema is the perfect commandment.
Then Jesus goes one step more. He gives us the practical application of this perfect commandment, the way for us to fulfill it in the way we live and witness our love for God. He says: “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Ah, there’s the rub. As Saint John says in his first letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Jesus took his first commandment from the Shema in the Book of Deuteronomy, and he takes his second commandment from the book of Leviticus: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” I’ll remind you that when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” his response was the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing that we are called to show mercy to everyone: in a liberal, not a restrictive, interpretation of the words “neighbor,” and “your own people.”
So what does that look like, for us as the people of God? It looks like our first reading. We go back to the 2nd book of the bible, Exodus, in a scene in which Moses has just come down from the mountain of God with the ten commandments, and he is instructing the people in the moral code that is to be the law of Israel. It is the Torah, the great gift that sets Israel apart for the divine wisdom of their law. God connects his law with Israel’s recent experience in Egypt, as strangers in another people’s land, vulnerable, and dependent upon others for their survival.
“Thus says the LORD: ‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” Immigrants have a humanity, a human dignity, that morally must be honored, under all circumstances. There is great risk and suffering in attempting to settle your family (or just part of your family) in a new country for a new life, assimilating into a new culture and community. They–and the people of the nation they’re looking to for hope–need better than a broken, inhumane system. Our national immigration policy hasn’t been sufficiently updated or funded, and it needs to be fixed as an urgent priority. But immigrants, aliens, asylum seekers, are of particular concern of God and his people, because they are vulnerable, in a position of weakness and need of protection, affirmation, and hospitality. And it is an act of divine love to welcome them and support them.
You may remember a situation in 2015, when (after an ACLU lawsuit) Catholic Charities was eliminated from the government's program of temporarily housing and caring for immigrants because Catholic Charities did not include access to abortion in the healthcare offered to its refugee/immigrant residents. This example, and that of Catholic Charities pulling out of the adoption services in Illinois' adoption program because it refused to adopt children to same-sex couples, illustrates the difficult dynamic of faith-based providers (adhering to their faith) working with (and receiving funding from) government social services.
“You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.” What is this? Social injustice, systemic dependency, racial prejudice, unlivable wages, systemic poverty, unaffordable or unavailable medical and mental healthcare. These are all issues described by the US Bishops as grave sins against the dignity of human life. We cannot address these issues with any flavor of Socialism or Communism, which the Church has clearly condemned for their systemic sins against human dignity. We can never solve a sinful problem with a sinful solution. And the government is not necessarily the best way for these problems to be solved. But there would be no outcry for Socialism if these problems were to be solved voluntarily, without the need for the government to compel by legislation.
And the last one from our reading, “If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him.” To me this might sound a bit like the cry of those trapped under decades of student loan payments, looking for hope. I get that students willingly agreed to take out these loans, and we can say that their consequences are just. But also remember that their oppressive student loan debt is a factor in their cohabiting and putting off marriage, delaying having children by using contraception and abortion, and the general despair, depression, and outcry about economic inequality. A lot of moral problems we lament could be greatly helped by finding a merciful solution to this problem. And that applies to many of the issues the bishops outlined in their document on forming consciences according to Catholic social teaching. Absolutely, abortion is the most urgent and egregious issue. But while we combat that issue, we must also combat the myriad other issues of systemic injustice and sin that infect our society and violate Catholic social teaching. Again, I encourage you to read the Bishops’ document if you haven’t done so yet.
Lastly, this social dimension, the second commandment of Jesus, takes on a particular importance in the Christian covenant. Not only does our neighbor bear the image of God in his or her humanity, but through baptism, our neighbor is our brother or sister in Christ. The poor and vulnerable come to us as Christ our brother, in need of our compassion. What you did (or did not do) for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did (or did not do) for me. And so because our neighbor is Jesus who has come to us in need, and because Jesus is God, this two-fold commandment folds back up into a single commandment of love: love for our neighbor is love for God, and justice denied to our neighbor is justice denied to God.
To love ourselves is to desire for ourselves justice, freedom, dignity, affirmation, kindness, truth, and salvation through Christ. And to love our neighbor as ourselves is to bring our desire for them to have that into our desire for our ourselves to have that, because they are united to us in Christ.
The cross is the center of our faith. The horizontal, social dimension, and the vertical, transcendent dimension, meet and are united in Christ. We are called to reach out in mercy to others, in Christ, because God has reached out in mercy to us, in Christ. We are our neighbors’—our brothers’ and sisters’—good servants, because we are God’s first.