Sunday Oct 29, 2023
The Human Side of Holiness
Exodus 22. 21 – 27. Psalm: 18. 1 Thessalonians 1.5c – 10. Gospel: Matthew 22.34 – 40.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and
one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in
the Law is the greatest?”
Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.
“And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two
commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.”
When we peruse the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, we encounter narratives and poems
describing the many hardships, struggles and injustices of biblical times. Nations and kingdoms
rival one another. Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires rise and
fall. Monarchs, princes, wealthy landlords and dishonest merchants enforce corrupt laws to enrich
themselves — leaving many people, especially small farmers, disenfranchised. Wars pollute the
land, destroying human and non-human life as women and children become widowed and
fatherless, respectively. Political and social oppression leads to forced migration, exile and
Biblical times were not so different from contemporary times. Countries are at war with one
another. The Israeli and Palestinian conflict rages on. Oligarchs control the global economic
system. Corporate agribusinesses gobble up small family farms. Landlords raise rents as lenders
increase mortgage rates, making it difficult for middle income and low wage earners to either stay
in their rentals or buy homes and property. The power brokers of the Global North continue to self-
enrich at the expense of the Global South.
Ironically, in 2023, economic statistics show that poverty has increased in the many nations, the
land of plenty. Economic data also indicates that the recent global pandemic created many new
billionaires among the western technology and pharmaceutical companies, making their CEOs and
presidents our new global bio-techno-feudal lords.
We live in a changed world with more changes on the horizon. Now is the time to become more
economically, socially and politically astute, as we try to navigate the new terrain upon which we
have yet to gain our footing.
Loving God involves doing practical justice in our world. But even our superficially Christian
society is full of people who show little respect for love or justice. Political and economic life is
ruled by values far from those of the Gospel. Greed, and fierce desire for power and profit can be
seen in our daily papers. We are closer to the paganism mentioned in Paul’s letter than we may
imagine. Today no less than then, the world is hostile to what Jesus represents, and it is hard for us
to take a stand even on important issues of justice and compassion. Our Lord shows love of God
and genuine love of the other as two basic aspects of the same call. There can never be a
contradiction between the two, even though one may sometimes feel trapped in a situation where a
particular law of Church or State seems to create a contradiction.
An approach to the second commandment about love could be by reflecting on how we love
ourselves. Love of neighbour becomes virtually impossible in the agone of self-hatred in which
some fearful, discouraged people can find themselves. Loving the other as oneself only becomes
possible if we have, or can grow into, a healthy, sane level of self-appreciation. This is a sound
psychological principle, which should be mentioned in our churches even though Christian love
transcends all the transient vogues of psychology. Its ideal is the example of Christ himself, with
also his commitment to justice for the poor.
Despite all our advancement on so many levels throughout three millennia, human beings have yet
to be able to live peacefully and justly with one another.
In the Exodus reading, focus is on those who are “other,” harshly translated as “aliens” as if they
were not part of humanity. In this narrative, the Israelites are reminded not to oppress the “other”
among them because as Israelites, they were once a people living in a land not their own, migrants
seeking asylum from severe famines and massive starvation.
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants who have come to live
among us in Canada. For many countries today, immigration and fair and just treatment of
immigrants continue to be a major challenge, especially in the United States where immigration
reform has yet to happen as people of different ethnicities, cultures and races seek asylum from
horrific political and social oppression. How do we non-Native American U.S. citizens whose
ancestors were immigrants”others” themselves — treat today’s immigrants? Sadly, some of us who
are descendants of immigrants have forgotten who we are, and some of us continue our history of
colonization, disenfranchisement and oppression.
We have moved from a mono-cultural to a multi-cultural, multi-racial society. The Word of God
invite us to reflect on how well we receive these strangers, make them feel at home in our society
and in our church. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” They are distinct from us, and, often,
different from us. The saying, “Birds of a feather flock together,” expresses the evident truth that
like attracts like. It is tempting to frequent the company of people like ourselves. Yet, the Lord
gathered about himself a community of great diversity. Even within the twelve there was to be
found a tax-collector and a zealot, men from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In a similar
way, the Spirit of the Lord at work in our lives prompts us to connect with those who are different
from us, as well as those who are like us. The one we find initially strange can reveal the Lord to
us in surprising ways. We pray for a greater openness to the many ways the Lord comes to us in
Religion devoid of right relationships between God and man, men among themselves and with the
whole creation becomes defiled, rotten.
Hence St James enlightens us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is
this: to visit the orphans and the widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the
world” (James 1:27). St. John hits the nail on the head when he states; “If any one says, ‘I love
God,’ and hates his brother , he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother , whom he has seen,
cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that he who
loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4: 20 – 21). All these scriptures speak of
relationship based on love.
This is the whole law, in its total gamut, summed up in a nutshell: love of God and love of
neighbour, loving God absolutely and neighbor as oneself. This is pure religion and the core of
pure religion is relationship rooted in love. Without this love-core relationship, religion is an
empty shell. More, it is pernicious and poisonous. Hence there is more bad and dangerous region
around than good religion, precisely because right relationship in love is a rare commodity.
Christ made religion a matter of total relationship: the total person, mind, heart and strength
consecrated to God in love and God totally giving Himself to humans in love. Religion is God and
man pledging in unison, “I am totally yours.”
The Catholic Church does not raise anyone to the honour of the altar who has not practiced love of
God and man to a heroic degree. How wise!
There are not many gods but one Lord who is sovereign and unique; thus Israel is to have only one
loyalty. Heart (mind, will) and soul (self, vital being), might express the idea of loving God with
the full measure of one’s devotion. Engraving this law on the hand, head and doorpost signifies
that it is to be upon your heart, i.e., constantly acted upon.
Jesus is our best friend and He wants us to have the best. And there is nothing more precious and
excellent than love. Every human being desires fullness of life and joy. To be fully human and
fully alive, to have real joy and zest in life, love is indispensable. So Jesus, who came that we may
have fullness of life and joy, first of all teaches us with His example what is true love and how to
love well and honestly.
Jesus was a person who knew how to go to the heart of the matter. And it is clear from his response
to the question put to him by one of the Pharisees in today’s gospel reading, “Master, which is the
greatest commandment of the Law?” In the time of Jesus there were known to be 613
commandments in the Jewish Law. The potential here to miss the wood for the trees was
enormous. Preoccupation with the detail of regulations could result in people ignoring what really
matters, like straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel (Mt 23:24) . Jesus answered the
Pharisee’s question by going straight to the heart of the Jewish law. He was asked if there is one
“greatest” commandment, but in reply he named the second greatest commandment as well. For
the first commandment, loving the Lord your God with all our heart and soul, is inseparable from
the conjoined commandment, of loving my neighbour as myself. For Jesus, what God wants from
us above all else is love. There is no genuine love of God unless it finds expression in love of our
neighbour. Love of neighbour, in turn, presupposes a healthy self-love, recognising and
appreciating myself as fundamentally good, because I am created in the image and likeness of God.
It is clear that Paul mixed closely with the communities whose lives he shared and the authority of
his word seems to have sprung from the quality of his life. His attitudes and work-habits were in
tune with the message that he delivered. His commitment to the task was evidenced by the troubles
he had to bear, while spreading the good news. There was an intrinsic link between what he said
and how he lived. The word spoken gave meaning to the life lived and the quality of the life
guaranteed the sincerity of the word. The people of Salonika accepted his message and found that
it had a power to change their own outlook on life. Paul names their experience “joy of the Holy
Spirit.” They touched the living Spirit of God in the midst of their own lives.
Genuine human concern that touches lives is an effective sacrament of the transcendent love of
God. The homilist might look at the mystery of the Christian God from the point of view of God’s
transcendence and immanence. The love of God is actually enfleshed in the nitty-gritty of human
interpersonal relationships. The authenticity of our religion is guaranteed by the value of our love
for real people. One could use the image of the flower that is rooted in the soil; it grows slowly by
transforming the elements of the soil in to its own living cells and eventually reaches up to the
beauty of the sky with its own form, colour and scent. The one sap enlivens the root, the stalk, the
flower and produces the perfume.
A truly Christian life is rooted in the earth and yet reaches up to the mystery of God through living
in love. Another possible development might stem from Paul’s notin of the Thessalonians”
reputation spreading through the surrounding area. People were drawn to the Christian faith by the
way these people were leading their lives. The word of the good news diffused itself quietly
through people admiring the way the Christians lived. People can be quick to condemn those who
have offbeat values or live a different lifestyle. We can fail to appreciate the faltering efforts others
make to cope with the struggles of frail human nature. If we could plumb the depths of meaning in
our own personal life histories we might be able to forge more effective link with others. The gift
of our humanity, savoured and appreciated, can become mirror and window to the mystery of God
for ourselves. It can be more a more effective means of evangelisation than all the hype of
religious words that often only confirm the “converted” in their convictions.
The success of a person as a person, as a human being, is to be measured by how well one loves.
All else is mere chaff, perishable and fleeting. Love alone is enduring, eternal. Sooner or later, all
of us will have to stand amid the debris and ruins of our life and assess our value and worth.
Everything, except our acts of love, will collapse and crumble in the dust. Nothing can withstand
the ravages of time, the vagaries of the future and the fluctuations of value. The one, therefore,
who has learned to love well at least one person will have an inner strength to face God with a
certain amount of serenity. The one who has failed to love has every reason to tremble. Denial of
god and life after death is an attempt to escape such a painful predicament.
It’s time for history to stop repeating itself by “othering.” It’s time to work for political, social,
economic and environmental justice ever more arduously to abolish sexism, racism, ableism,
colorism, ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexual orientation discrimination and the
many more forms of discrimination that keep the “other” disenfranchised and on the margins.