Homily for the
in Ordinary TimeOct. 23, 2011
Matt 22: 34-40
Willow Towers, New Rochelle
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison [with editing]
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matt 22: 40).
A scribe, a scholar of the law—of the Torah—asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. The Pharisees and the scribes of the time had identified 613 distinct commandments in the Torah.
Jesus gives a pretty simple answer, altho it’s in 2 parts: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole being, and you shall love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.
We might ask how loving our neighbor—our fellow human beings—can be in any way like loving God. The 1st reading (Ex 22:20-26), which is from the Torah, helps us to understand. In this passage, which is not unique in the sacred scriptures, God commands the Israelites to respect the rights of and to care for the least members of their society: aliens, widows, orphans, and the destitute. God identifies their concerns with his own: “If ever you wrong them and they cry out, I will surely hear their cry [and] my wrath will flare up” against you (Ex 22:22-23).
We have some similar passages in the gospels, especially the parable of the Last Judgment, which will be our gospel reading 4 weeks from now on the last Sunday of the church year. In that parable, the just are rewarded with eternal life and the wicked are condemned to hell because whatever they did, or did not, do to the least of the Lord’s brothers he considers as having been done to himself (Matt 25:31-46).
So we can’t truly love the Lord our God with our whole being unless we love God’s living images among us, our brothers and sisters created in God’s image. St. John says as much in his 1st Letter: “If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?” (3:17). “Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (4:20).
We’ve heard, and probably said, many times, “Charity begins at home.” The 1st neighbors whom we must love in word and deed are the people we live among, the people we see every day; and our family members, whom we may not see every day due our present circumstances but to whom we have special ties unlike any other.
The passage from Exodus gives us an additional direction for our love of neighbor and thus our love of God, viz. our care for and protection of the most vulnerable people around us. In the Old Testament—the Hebrew Scriptures—these are usually listed as “the widow, the orphan, and the alien.” In the reading today there’s an additional clause, invoking the Hebrews’ memory that “you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (22:20). When Israel 1st went to Egypt—Jacob and his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters (Gen 46:7), 70 strong, according to Genesis (46:27)—it was as refugees from famine. The people of Egypt welcomed them, took them in, provided for them, gave them “the best land in Egypt” (45:18).
Caring for and protecting the widow, the orphan, the alien, the destitute—the refugee, the homeless, the unemployed, the hungry, the war-battered, the aged, the immigrant and the migrant, and the unborn, all the most destitute and most vulnerable members of our society thus is a biblical command from God and is a most practical way of demonstrating to ourselves and to the world that our love of God is genuine.
One other aspect of loving God with our whole being, and our neighbor as ourselves: for Catholics, today is Mission Sunday, a day for remembering our mission, from Jesus Christ, to evangelize the whole world.
But mission isn’t only for Catholics. When God called Abraham, he told him that all the nations of the earth would be blessed thru him (Gen 12:1-3). And Abraham’s children have gone into the whole world, have spread everywhere. When they are true to their identity as God’s people, they testify everywhere—by their worship and by their lives—that there is one God, and that one God loves us, and that one God calls us to be faithful to him and to one another.
We Christians have a similar mission, more particularized by our being disciples of Jesus of Nazareth: to proclaim—again, by our worship and by our lives—that God loves us and makes us his own, with an eternal destiny—to live forever with him.
Isn’t it a sign of our love for all men and women, as well as for God, to be faithful to who we are, whether we’re Jews or Christians? And as Jews or as Christians to make God our Father known and loved?