Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
October 25, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Exodus 22:20-25 | Psalm 18:2-4;47;51
I Thessalonians 1:5C-19 | Matthew 22:35-40
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
With the hotly-contested nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States, the law has been all over the news lately. Judge Amy is a well-educated young lady, and in fact, was a law professor at Notre Dame law school before her present job as a Judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the Federal Judicial system.
During the hearings on Judge Amy’s nomination, the United States Senators questioned her extensively about her judicial philosophy hoping learn how she might decide cases. While she was careful not to prognosticate how she might rule on issues likely to come before her in her capacity as a Judge, Judge Amy did share her approach to legal decision-making. It’s called “textualism”, meaning that the law should be interpreted as written according to the intent of the legislators that passed it, without taking into account supervening events, changes in public attitudes, or, heaven forbid, the personal views of the judge.
When Judge Amy was selected by former President George W. Bush for her present judgeship on the Seventh Circuit, Senator Dianne Feinstein of our great State of California quizzed Judge Amy extensively about if and how her conservative Roman Catholic religion would influence her decisions as a judge. She tried to reassure Senator Feinstein that she would not allow her religious views to influence her judicial decisions. But Senator Feinstein wasn’t satisfied with her answers, and would later tell Judge Amy, “Religious Dogma lives loudly within you,” or words to that effect.
The intersection of Catholicism and secular law lives loudly within me. I practiced law for about twenty years and am now totally and permanently retired from the legal profession. One of the reasons I quit was that I could never quite accept the notion that this country should be a government of laws and not of persons, meaning that cases should be decided according to what the law is and not who the litigants and judges are. The near-total absence of empathy for and compassion towards human suffering is the primary reason I no longer practice law.
The legal field where I had the greatest expertise was Workers Compensation, a system that delivered medical care and financial assistance to persons injured in the course and scope of their employment. Although not as adversarial as other legal systems such as civil or criminal law, it nonetheless had winners and losers, where either injured workers or employers had to live with unfortunate results. Driven by the lines from the Song of Mary imploring us to put down the mighty from their seat and exalt the humble and meek, and to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away, I represented injured workers against insurance companies.
I operated from the premise that injured workers always deserved to be healed and financially compensated simply because they were injured, just like I think that hungry people deserve to be fed, simply because they are hungry, and just like I think homeless people deserve to be housed, simply because they are homeless. The law, however, looks at injured workers. differently than I do. Whether or not the injured workers deserved to be healed and get some money depends on the facts of their cases and the applicable law, not the mere fact of an injury.
But as a Catholic Christian, my conscience looks at these situations from the viewpoint expressed in the second of the two Great Commandments delineated in today’s Gospel, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, which I would rephrase as, “How would I want to be treated if I were in the same situation?” If I were injured, how would I want to be treated? I would want to be healed, and I would want money to cover all the financial losses that I incurred as a result of the injury to me, without regard to the facts concerning how I was injured. To paraphrase Senator Feinstein, the words of Jesus live more loudly within me than do the principles of secular law. For that reason, I would be a poor judge. The values by which I live would not allow me to follow the law if it meant imposing a result I would find distasteful if imposed on me.
The principle of loving one’s neighbor as oneself is a truly divine law that transcends Christianity and in fact, predates Jesus. As you have heard me say many times, Jesus was born and lived as a Jew. So it is not surprising that in telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves that he drew on his Jewish roots from the Book of Leviticus in the Torah, which states, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Variations of this idea appear in other parts of the Old Testament. For example, in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit, we find, “And what you hate, do not do to anyone.” It stands to reason that you should not do anything to another person that you would not done to yourself.
This same principle is found, in some form or another, in every significant religious tradition. Here are some examples.
A Hindu would say, “do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.”
A Confucian would declare, “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself.”
A Buddhist would express this idea as, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
But perhaps the most demanding version was spoken by the Prophet Mohammed, the spiritual ancestor of our Muslim sisters and brothers. He said,
“Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong even if they do evil.”
What is the rationale for loving your neighbor as yourself, as the Second Great Commandment tells us to do? The answer is found in the First Great Commandment, to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. Again, when Jesus said this, he reached deep into his Jewish roots. Specifically, he reached into the Book of Deuteronomy, which recites the prayer that every Jew knows so well called the Shema Israel:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
So how does loving God relate to loving your neighbor? Is there a conflict between loving God and loving your neighbor? No.
Every person is created in God’s image. Every person, no matter how evil we think they are, has some small spark of the divine presence of God inside of them that entitles them to be treated with dignity; that is, to be treated as you would have them treat you.
Today’s First Reading gives us some examples. Don’t mistreat immigrants. What if you were the mistreated immigrant? Some of the loudest opponents of immigration are persons who were immigrants themselves or are the descendants of immigrants. They have become so assimilated into the dominant culture that they forget how it felt to be a stranger in a strange land. Be kind to widows, widowers, and orphans. What if you were in their circumstances?
And if someone owes you money, don’t be merciless like the banks were during the last housing recession, foreclosing on people right and left leaving them homeless. Today’s First Reading tells us if you are a creditor and have something that belongs to your debtor as security, return it, even if you are not paid as agreed. How many people would still be in their homes today if the banks had worked in good faith with their borrowers instead of ruthlessly foreclosing on them and kicking them out into the street? The people at the banks who took those evil actions never considered how they would like to become homeless.
As today’s First Reading tells us, God will hear the cries of those who suffer misfortune at the hands of people with power over them. At some point, God will say, “Enough” and take action. For example, enforcing a contract to the point it causes human suffering violates the dignity of the victim, a dignity they possess because they are children of God created in God’s image. While the importance of performing as one agreed to perform is important, human dignity comes first.
The principles at stake here go beyond mere empathy for other people. When you hurt another person, you are hurting God. You are disappointing God, who made you as good and intended you to do good things. Immigrants, widows and widowers, orphans, and debtors mistreated by those at the other end of a power relationship can expect to find protection and solace when they cry out to a God whose ears are always open. Conversely, when you honor and love other people, you honor and love God because those other people were created in God’s image. In this way, by loving other people, even atheists worship God.
The Two Great Commandments are often considered a summary of the Ten Commandments, some of which impose duties to God and the others duties towards our neighbors. One loves God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul by: worshipping God alone rather than false gods like a political regime or country; by not worshipping idols like material goods and money; and by honoring the Sabbath through weekly worship, even if in these times of pandemic we must do so online.
But to love one’s neighbor as oneself goes beyond refraining from actions which we would not want to experience if directed at us. Yes, “Do not steal.” You wouldn’t like it if someone stole your things, would you? And yes, “Do not kill.” You would not want someone to kill you, would you?
The operative verb in both of these two Great Commandments is love. You worship God alone because you love God with all that is within you. You refrain from theft, murder and other bad conduct because you love your neighbor.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is again under attack from the Pharisees, the religious party of religious law scholars who seemed always out to get Jesus and embarrass him. The Pharisees fancied themselves as legal experts. By this point in history, the Jewish Law had become very complicated. It included six-hundred-thirteen commandments, three hundred and sixty-five prohibitions, one for each day of the year, and two-hundred-sixty-eight prescriptions, one for each bone in the human body. The Pharisees spent a lot of their time arguing about all that.
The Pharisees posed to Jesus another trick question, just like they did when they asked him about paying taxes to Caesar which we heard about last week in a wonderful homily by Deacon Sharon. Here, they were trying to get Jesus to do was to tell them which law was the most important. Whatever priority Jesus would proclaim would most likely be challenged by someone. If it appeared he was annulling a part of the Law, he could lose his status in the community as a teacher.
But, as always, Jesus did not take the bait and fall into their trap. Instead, the answer Jesus gave came from his own Jewish faith. He affirmed the entire law by summarizing it with just two commandments whose imperative is to love.
The entire Christian tradition is based on love, not on laws. Life itself is grounded in love, a love that is open and generous. We may not always feel this love, but if we are honest and we allow ourselves to reflect on life, we will realize this truth.
The entire universe springs from love. Love called us into being. We will only be happy if we live in love. Therefore, when we are told to love God and our neighbor, we are not being asked to do something contrary to how God made us. Instead, we are commanded to live according to what God made us to do. We are created in the image of a God who is love, so too, we are built to love and to be loved.
So why do people continue to do bad things to other people? Why don’t they love others as they love themselves? Look carefully at the words of the Second Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” To love others, you must first love yourself. I don’t mean that in a debased, narcissistic way, but I’m asking you to look at yourself and love yourself in an honest and healthy way.
Loving yourself means to accept yourself as you are, warts and all. Cast out the idea that you are perfect. You aren’t perfect, and never will be, yet you are worthy to be loved by yourself and others.
Loving yourself means coming to terms with those aspects of yourself that you cannot change, and vow to change what you can change.
Loving yourself means you don’t have to conform to the expectations of others if you cannot in good conscience do so.
Loving yourself means self-respect and a positive self-image.
Loving yourself means you show gratitude for the gifts God has bestowed on you.
Loving yourself means taking care of your physical and mental health.
Loving yourself means developing yourself through ongoing education and learning new skills, particularly, people skills.
Loving yourself means you don’t have to put down other people to build yourself up.
Loving yourself means you have been through a lot and you have come through it, getting stronger and stronger every time.
Loving yourself is remembering who you are despite adversity. In fact, learn to see adversity as your friend. It challenges you to make life interesting so you can get to the place you really want to go.
When you don’t love yourself, you become afraid of making critical mistakes. You feel this way because you don’t trust in your own ability to handle whatever comes your way and instead start doing things you shouldn’t do, like doing bad things to other people.
If you don’t love yourself, you will, more often than not, hurt other people But if you love yourself in a positive way, you will have no need to victimize others. What will help you from loving other people is finding peace within yourself such that you are resting comfortably within the depths of your being.
Yet despite the unrelenting message from Jesus that our relationship to God and other people springs from love and not laws on stone tablets, our conservative sisters and brothers continue to preach the message that being a good Christian means obeying what they consider to be “God’s laws.” It does not.
Conservative Catholics think that whatever the Vatican spews outcomes directly from God, and that humanity must pay, pray and obey. That message to everyone is, in so many words, “You’re stupid,” hardly a loving message.
Conservative Protestants read the Bible as a law book that demands conformity and not as a love book that gives us freedom. That message to everyone is, in so many words, “There is only one way to live,” despite the fact God made each of us as unique creations.
Both groups preach that if we don’t do as they say, our souls will burn in Hell if we die. They claim to be messaging us out of concern for humanity’s ultimate destination, but actually, their purpose is a bit more pernicious: to control other people by instilling fear. Making people afraid of you is the precise opposite of loving them, so what could be more un-Christian than scaring people to control them?
When you control other people through fear of punishment, however well-intentioned you may be, you disrespect their freedom and therefore disrespect their dignity. No way are you acting out of love for them.
When a parent tells a child, “Don’t do that because God will punish you,” that parent is presenting a false picture of God to that child who as an adult is highly likely to turn away from God and descend into agnosticism or, even worse, atheism.
What intelligent person would worship a God who does bad things to people?
Is not a God who loves us more worthy of worship than one who does not?
Wouldn’t we rather have a close relationship with a person who loves us instead of one who does not?
When we love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, we are not doing so to score points with God. Instead, we are returning to God the love that God shows us. We ought to love God unconditionally because God unconditionally loves us.
A soul devoid of love is a sorry soul indeed. Jesus came to fix that by establishing the Kingdom of God and all that love that Kingdom entails to replace the loveless regime where people survive by gaining power over other people rather than loving then by respecting their freedom and dignity.
Human love for God and others is cannot be commanded, cannot be coerced, and cannot be bought. It must arise from the human freedom God has given us. And it is not written on stone tablets but arises from our hearts, that is, from the depths of our being, which is our soul.
When we profusely love ourselves and profusely love our neighbor in the same way, and to the same degree, we are relating to others in the same way that Jesus commanded us to do in the Farewell Discourses to his disciples on the night before he died: love one another as I have loved you.
I will close with the lyrics from a Beatles song that says it all:
There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love
Love is all you need.