23 Oct, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s Gospel celebrates the great commandment of love. To love our neighbour as God does, all prejudicebased on race, religion
or colour has to go. God’s teaching to Moses at Mount Sinai promoted a sense of fairness towards others, even beyond beyond specific commandments. Jesus demonstrates a life of utterly unselfish loving, and invites his followers to make that our guide to life. For St Paul, this imitation of Christ is the core of spirituality.
Exod 22:20-26. Part of the Sinai commandments is the fairness which the Israelites should show each other in practical matters, whether in lending or borrowing, or in matters of sexual love.
1 Thess 1:5-10. The fervour of the Thessalonian converts influenced other local churches. They became became imitators of Paul and (through him,) of the Lord.
Mt 22:34-40. Jesus’ morality is the twofold commandment of love. It is impossible to love God truly, without loving our neighbour – the real challenge of the Gospel.
– for a deeper love of God in our community, that we may all know, love and serve him, in ways that are genuine and true.
– for all those in our society who are victims of prejudice.
– that our God may open our eyes to our own prejudices.
– that we may always find a place in our hearts and our homes for strangers.
Doing Justice (Angela O’Rourke)
Today’s first reading and gospel give us a clear and practical principle: loving God means doing justice.Even 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.
The gospel 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.
Heart of the matter (Martin Hogan)
Life is becoming increasingly complex. We value people who have the gift of getting beyond the multiple dimensions of an issue so as to zoom in on the heart of the matter. Such people prevent us from missing the wood for the trees. They are good at separating out what really matters from the things that are less important. They encourage us to invest our energies in what is really worthwhile, rather than allowing them to be dissipated by what is not significant.
Jesus was a person who knew how to go to the heart of the matter. On one occasion someone asked him to intervene in a family dispute about inheritance. In his reply, he ignored the concrete issue and, instead, he called on the person who approached him to “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Lk 12:13-15). He saw that the real issue was not the details of the particular case but the greed which underlay the dispute.
This capacity of Jesus to get to the heart of the matter 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 sheer number and detail of regulations could result in people ignoring what really matters. On one occasion Jesus humorously refers to this as straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel (Mt 23:24). Jesus took advantage of the Pharisee’s question to go straight to the heart of the Jewish law. He was asked only about the “greatest” commandment. His answer, however, named the greatest and the second greatest commandment. For Jesus, the greatest commandment, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind,” was inseparable from the second greatest commandment, “You must love your neighbour s yourself.” Jesus’ answer declared that what God wants from us above all else is love. Our love is due first to God, but 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.
Parents with children who have stopped going to Mass will often say, “Yet, heshe is a good and caring person.” Is this to say that, although they are weak on the greatest commandment, “Love God,” they are strong on the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbour.” Yet, a few chapters further on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus states that those who live the second greatest commandment can find themselves living the greatest commandment, without realizing it. “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink… a stranger and welcomed you?” To this question comes the reply, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:37-40). To love the neighbour, especially the vulnerable neighbour, is to love the Lord.
The opening of this morning’s second reading mentions several vulnerable neighbours. The first one referred to is the “stranger.” The term “stranger” has quite a precise meaning in the Scriptures. It does not simply refer to people who are not known to us. Parents often rightly tell their children not to take a lift from strangers, in this sense. The term “stranger” in the Scriptures refers to someone from outside Israel who lived in Israel, a foreigner living among the people of Israel. We in Ireland have experienced in recent years a dramatic increase in the number of strangers, in this Biblical sense, who have come to live among us. We have moved, and are still in the process of moving, from a mono-cultural society to a multi-cultural and multi-racial society. Today’s readings invite us to reflect on how well we have learned to love these strangers, to make them feel at home in our society and in our church. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The call to love the stranger can also be heard as a call to love what we find strange in others. As we go through life, we become aware that other people are not extensions of ourselves. 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 this morning for a greater openness to the many ways the Lord comes to us in life.
God and Caesar (John Walsh)
Before being called by Christ to be one of his twelve Apostles, St Matthew was a tax collector operating in a customs house, somewhere in the north of Galilee. Since this profession required that he be able to read, write and especially keep records, these skills he would put to good use in writing his gospel account of Jesus’ mission. His literary style, as an evangelist, may be more artificial than that of St Luke, but there is no doubt that the gospel excerpt you have just heard is truly dramatic. The question put to Jesus, as to whether it was permissible for Jews to pay tribute to Caesar, gives a clear insight into the minds and strategy of the Pharisees. They were endeavouring to walk Jesus into a political trap that would set him at odds with the Roman authorities, who were the rulers of Israel at that time, or, failing that, would discredit him before his own people. To avoid giving rise to suspicion of their intent, they decided not to get involved personally themselves. They sent some of their disciles along to Christ instead. It is quite likely that the leaders of the Pharisees stayed in the background because they wanted the followers of Herod, the Roman appointed tetrarch of Galilee, to take part also in the plot against Jesus, even though these Herodians, who openly advocated cooperation with the Romans, were normally their most bitter enemies.
The feigned tributes to Jesus by this delegation, mention of his honesty, his fearlessness, his disregard for the status of those he encountered, all this flattery coming from people who normally were hostile to Christ merely highlights the hypocrisy of their praise. Then the trap was sprung: “tell us what is your own opinion? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Were Christ to answer, “Pay the tax,” then he would stand accused of collaboration with the Roman oppressors, and would incur the scorn of ordinary Jews each of whom had to pay a poll tax, from the age of twelve for women and fourteen for men. Were he to advocate non-payment, he could be arrested for sedition by the Roman authorities. Jesus’ response, however, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” left them confounded, and they slunk away. But Jesus’ reply left the matter in suspense, because it did not touch upon the right of the Romans to rule Israel, nor did it enumerate precisely the things o Caesar or those of God.
These opposing claims of God and state were left to be decided by the informed conscience of each individual, and still are to this day. What must be kept in mind is the warning of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, that “no one can serve two masters; one cannot be the slave of both God and wealth” (Mt 6:24). Wealth in early OT times was seen as created by God, and bestowed on patriarchs, kings and leaders who had roles of special responsibility. Later on, wealth ceased to be regarded as a gift from God. “Woe to those who join house to house and field to field, until everywhere belongs to them,” Isaiah warned (Is 5:8), and Jesus himself said, “alas for you who are rich; you are having your life of ease now” (Lk 6:24). The world and all its resources were created by God for the benefit of all human beings without exception, and this must usually obtain alongside the right to private property, whether inherited or acquired by personal enterprise. It is the task of government to seek a balance between these objetives that will lead to the common good of all those governed. And taxation is still one of the most common means of achieving this.
But, just as with the Jews in the time of our Lord, people nowadays do not take kindly to having a share of their earnings taken from them in the form of tax. But, whereas the taxes then in Israel, for the most part, went to swell the coffers of the authorities in Rome, where slavery was a substantial economic factor as well for all its citizens, taxes collected nowadays, in this country for example, go towards caring for the sick, the elderly, the permanently disabled, the huge cost of maintaining the infrastructure of the state. We should never forget that we have a dual set of responsibilities, towards God and towards our neighbour in society. In the latter, state authorities have a major role to play, and have a right to our cooperation in their endeavour to bring about the material welfare of all citizens. We fulfil our obligations towards achieving that by obeying the just laws of the state, by paying our lawful taxes, and by helping to bring about the common good at all times.
Spelling it Out (Anthony O’Leary)
After the encounter recounted in today’s gospel the evangelist does not record any response from the Jewish authorities. No one could disagree with loving God and loving the neighbour within the Jewish faith context. In preaching this can be a difficulty, in that no one who participates in the Sunday Eucharist could conceivably reject such a basic attitude of the faith. One could politely listen and agree. The celebrant might take the road of spelling out ways in which the local community might improve its love of neighbour, but people are not so eager to hear a harangue about the preacher’s pet hate about omissions Left with the possibility of delivering mere generalisations that could fail to register effectively with many people, the homilist might develop the gospel theme of the one Charity that reaches to God and neighbour with the same life by stalling from the second reading.
In his career, 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 habits of work were in tune with the message that he delivered unceasingly. Commitment to the task was evidenced by his ferocious sufferings in 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 sterling metal of the word. The people of Salonika accepted him and his message and they 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 touched their lives became an effective sacrament of the transcendent love of God. This incident affords the homilist the chance of looking at the mystery of the Christian God from the point of view of God’s transcendence and his immanence. The love of God which is greater than all our words or any experience, spiritual, mental or emotional, 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. There is a link with the first reading, where we see the prophetic theologian inviting Israel to examine its own history and to review their current attitudes as people who wield power, in the light of their memory of being slaves in Egypt. Drawing on this point the preacher could invite the congregation to reflect on their own life stories and encourage them to grow in compassion and empathy for the sufferings of others. Often people can be quick to condemn those who have strange values or live a different lifestyle. We can fail to appreciate the faltering efforts people 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 other people and share the inner driving force of our faith. 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.
First Reading: Exodus 22:10-16
When someone delivers to another a donkey, ox, sheep, or any other animal for safekeeping, and it dies or is injured or is carried off, without anyone seeing it, an oath before the Lord shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner shall accept the oath, and no restitution shall be made. But if it was stolen, restitution shall be made to its owner. If it was mangled by beasts, let it be brought as evidence; restitution shall not be made for the mangled remains.
When someone borrows an animal from another and it is injured or dies, the owner not being present, full restitution shall be made. If the owner was present, there shall be no restitution; if it was hired, only the hiring fee is due. When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10
Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Gospel: Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he 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?”
He 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 neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”