Mass readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Exodus 22.21-27 Psalm 18.1-3, 6, 46, 50 1 Thessalonians 1.5-10 Matthew 22.34-40
I think that most Christians, most Catholics, can answer the question, “what is the greatest commandment?” They can even go further, and remember Jesus’ particular “inflection” that we hear today.
Essentially, it comes of remembering that it’s a bit of a, not trick question, but rather, clever answer from our Lord who gives us a “double commandment.” Love of neighbour and of God are the twin mandate of Christ. And it is a logical mandate — they go together; like love and marriage to together, and like the old song, “you can’t have one without the other.” Love of God first must be followed by love of neighbour because to love God is not about rituals, about formal prayer, but what those actions are in reference to: a God who is the source of absolute truth, perfect justice and inexhaustible love. These are God’s characteristics. And if we adore God, truly worship him as the source of life and meaning for us, then we live these qualities out in our own lives. We seek to manifest truth and justice and love because in these we experience God; and the principal means to express these is in relation to others. And if these are absolutes, they precede all other considerations of race, creed, sex, etc.
Now, as clear as I think we all have that in our hearts and minds, I can well understand how we nonetheless struggle to apply this to our daily lives as individuals, family members, and as part of a local community, let alone how this is to translate into the national and foreign policies of our nation.
In Lumen gentium, the constitution of the Laity passed by the Second Vatican Council, it’s made clear that I am not the one who has the competence to work that answer out. Indeed, our primary teachers with respect to doctrine in faith and morals, the bishops, are said to have a competence that only “extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends.” (n. 25) That is, we as clergy work with defining and refining principles.
The laity in contrast are tasked with applying these principles to the world: “laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” (n. 31)
So, we’re supposed to be doing just that. In this case, asking ourselves, as people who love God, “who are our neighbours, and how are we to love them?”
It is fair to say that what Jesus mandates is far more radical than most imagine. And I mean that on both counts: love of God, and love of neighbour.
When it comes to God, we see in how Jesus lived his life, and how the Apostles and the early Church lived; that there is an example of daily prayer as an intentional activity of spiritual exercise, and of fellowship in faith that is far more than camaraderie. Our Catholic tradition reflects that in the daily discipline of the breviary, and more popularly the rosary and many other devotions of which I hope all of you practice at least one; and of course, there is the Sunday obligation of coming together for the mass. Love of God is to be expressed in the action of prayer. Prayer in thanksgiving, in meditation on God’s word, in humility asking for the grace we need. It’s not just an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. To say, “I believe there is a God” isn’t enough. We must explore what it means for us that there is God, and how we are then, again, logically, to conform ourselves to him.
When it comes to the question, “who is my neighbour?” Jesus expounded on just who that is in his famous parable of the Good Samaritan.
He took the despised figure of the Samaritan and made him the model of neighbourliness for his Jewish listeners, the last sort of person one would think a rabbi, a Jewish teacher of faith would at that time use to convince people of the virtue of neighbourly service. Yet, that’s what Jesus does. And so, we know our neighbours according to their actions, not according to how orthodox they are relative to our creed (and remember, for Judeans, Samaritans were heretics); and the same applies to us. He put the acts of love ahead of agreement on doctrinal issues. We don’t serve people based on the degree of our agreement, but because they are in need.
And we know someone is our neighbour in the same way. True neighbours don’t look upon us disapproving because we are Catholic and disagree with our creed and traditions, and because of it refuse us in our time of need, or more proactively, look to make our lives miserable.
While we are called to be neighbours to everyone; sadly, not all follow this ethic. And this is the central conflict of our times, but I don’t know that many of us recognize this in what is clearly a trend toward reviving tribalism, a world of groups against groups. Some of it is of the primitive sort, based on ethnicity, on race; there is also the divisions that arise around religion – antisemitism which humanity finds difficult to rid itself of, but also other forms of religiously based discrimination. Christophobia and anti-Catholic sentiment plagues contemporary western society, and likely is what lies behind the ban on our Armed Forces chaplains uttering proper prayers in public, or wearing the symbol of our faith on their vestments at public liturgies. Indeed, the Catholic bishop to the armed forces, Scott McCaig, responded to a national defence advisory report last May on military chaplains, observing that, “Many of the pejorative remarks would appear to be directed to Catholics, as well as some other Christians, and amounted to mere caricatures of what we actually profess.”
There is a growing acceptance at public institutions, universities most prominently, but professional associations and labour unions, of tests of orthodoxy according to secular ideologies – ideologies that function more as pseudo-religions from what we see of their adherents. These tests, formal and informal, are a means of separating out people of traditional faith, or even, to be frank, common-sense decency quite apart from any religious convictions. These tests are to identify the new enemies, and target them for persecution of both the soft and hard kind; of social isolation, lack of collegial support, more severely, loss of job and of one’s living.
Others, more fanatical think themselves justified in any outrageous act of protest against the larger community – and you see this in the destruction or defacing of public buildings, monuments, memorials, even publicly owned art, such as we see with those who throw paint at masterworks hanging in the great art galleries of the world. They seem unconcerned at the hurt and distress felt by the rest of us as our heritage is assaulted, our sacred places desecrated. They don’t seem very neighbourly.
Indeed, they are not our neighbours, nor are we theirs, despite any physical proximity – rather we are now enemies and we cannot ignore that fact. We can’t be naïve about our situation today. Jesus told us to be “clever as serpents” even as we remain faithful to Jesus’ command to love our enemies, and to pray that we will some day be neighbours.
And that constant effort at reconciliation, that drive to have us found community on the basis of our common humanity and our need of God has been the Church’s work for two thousand years. And it would seem that as we have drawn close to having this perspective on human affairs regarded as an indisputably true, there is now resistance, and a willful turning away from this truth. It’s the denial that, and this is no exaggeration, leads to the death camps of Nazi Germany, the Gulag of the Soviet Union, the “cultural” revolution of communist China, the acts of terror against innocents lately seen. All of these involved and continue to involve men and women doing the most horrific and despicable things to children, to the aged, to innocent youths, and so on because they no longer see others as neighbours and potential friends, but rather as competitors in a dog-eat-dog world, and therefore, enemies.
Have we as a Church then failed? Have we by our own lapses in neighbourliness, our own indulgence in tribalism of whatever kind, contributed to the current state of the world?
I’m going to be generous here, and say, perhaps some, and maybe more than a little, but our failings and faithlessness in this regard is outweighed by just how much has been accomplished by generation upon generation of Christians living the teachings of Jesus, however imperfectly, bringing humanity to, at the very least, consciousness around just what our decision as a species is: to choose love of neighbour, and the hard work of community, or love of tribe, and the bloody work of constant war.
As a measure of how far we’ve come, I’d site a recent interview with the English comedian David Mitchell. He’s written a popular history on the monarchs of England. He was asked who his favourite English kings and queens were. This led him to be blunt about the nature of those supposedly magnificent times of knights in armour, and royalty resplendent in cloth of gold and ermine, with bejeweled crowns. He said they were all, kings and queens alike, pretty much thugs, brutes, and given their situation, they had to be. These men and women ruled at a time when conflicts were settled by horrific battles involving hand to hand combat in which enemies hacked away at each other with axe and sword and spear.
That was the world that received the gospel. And such has been the blessed effect that we look upon those times with horror; and today, when we see any return to this, we are horrified.
What we can infer from this is that by some strange working of grace, for the spirit works in mysterious ways as we know, societies as tribal as any that have ever been, accepted the gospel over the course of the last two thousand years. And from the ground up, as it were, have been changed, the common folk have come to have rising expectations, generation upon generation toward society as a whole, and toward those who would govern their communities. And that effort to make better our supposed “betters” who presume to rule us, must continue; and we must insist upon a society whose membership has nothing to do with racial, ethnic, ideological or religious grouping, but rather on personal character that values others for their virtues and their talents, and has expectations of civility toward others and service to the community as a whole.
We want a world of neighbours, and the by the love God, we will work for it.