Homily for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

A young boy was told by his mother to go and wash his hands. He asked “Why? Why should I?” She told him, “because of germs.” He complained on his way to the sink, “Santa Claus, Jesus, and germs, that’s all they talk about and I’ve never seen any of them!”

That is a critical issue for Jesus too! Our reading from Mark skips over Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem after he has climbed up from Jericho. That story we hear during the readings of Holy Week. Now He had cleared the Temple precincts of the money changers and was teaching there. Jesus takes us to the heart of his ongoing dispute with the Pharisees and ruling class of the day in the centre of their power, the Temple. They had been arguing with Jesus about resurrection. A Scribe hearing the discussion and seeing how well Jesus answered them came and asked his own question. Which commandment is the first of all? This particular man does not seem to be trying to test or trick Jesus. Jesus unusually gives him a direct answer to his question about which of the commandments is first of all.

Jesus reply picks up two widely separated texts from the Old Testament. The first is from the book of Deuteronomy quoting the Jewish Shema, the prayer which forms part of a devout Jew's morning and evening prayer even today. It begins, “Listen, Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Central to Jewish faith is the oneness of God. There is no other God. It is a repudiation of all other pagan gods. It then goes on to command love of God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The Shema begins with the word, “listen”. “Listen Israel.” Israel has been chosen by God because God wants to speak to them. God speaks to them of God's faithful love for them. What is asked from them in return is an obedient response of fidelity.

This commitment to fidelity is beautifully said in the words of Moses proceeding this commandment in Deuteronomy:

“And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

This is similar to what we do before we listen to the Gospel read at Mass. We sign ourselves on the forehead, lips and heart as we say, “May the Word of God be in my mind, and on my lips and in my heart.”

Then Jesus quotes from the Book of Leviticus 19:17, “love your neighbour as yourself”. The passage is part of a whole list of commands against exploiting one's neighbour in the community of Israel. It places love of one's neighbour on an equal footing with love of self. The way one cares for oneself should be the way we treat our neighbour. Jesus, uniquely, takes this command and gives it a universal significance as he places it side by side with the command to love God.

When speaking of love we are accustomed to think in terms of a personal internal psychological state. It is about feeling, emotion, and affection for another. So the temptation is to think of love lasting only as long as the feeling lasts. In first century Israel that kind of emotional state may or may not be part of what they understood by love. Because theirs was a group centred culture so that love is first of all expressed externally by our actions. Love meant a firm commitment to a person in a group, the family, the village, or the tribe. So marriage for example, as you know, was not simply for love as we know it or only a commitment to another person. It was a commitment to the other family and tribal group first of all. Therefore marriages were arranged by families not by a couple.

What the commandment to love God with our whole being is asking for, then, is not simply an intense feeling of affection for God but an exclusive attachment to God before all else. That was expressed in the Covenant God made with Moses and the people. Likewise, the command to love our neighbour is not asking for an intense feeling of affection for everyone. That is impossible. But rather a willingness to remain committed to one another in compassion and justice.

The trouble the Pharisees were having and which we all have at times is that we can come to think that all the external trappings of religious observance can fulfil this command. It can be easy to say we love God and still treat others with contempt. In bringing the two commands together Jesus shows us a that these two really form one commandment. You cannot have one without the other.

The other side of the coin as it were, is that if we are not careful we can see our daily life as not having anything to do with being particularly religious. We can see our daily frustrations and struggles and failures with family and work and community as evidence or our sinfulness and a hindrance to our devotion to God. Yet these daily acts of love and commitment are evidence of the birth pangs of the Kingdom of God. I was thinking of this as I watched all the people working at the fete. So much hard work. So much dedication to bring it all about so that children are educated in our school. It all matters. Here at the Eucharist we bring all this work we have done to the forefront of our memory as we pray together. We bring this living sacrifice of love and place it before God. If we do not see it this way then all the frustrations and difficulties we encounter can be seen as just some of the pain of life which we try to avoid.

We may not see Santa Claus or germs but we do see Jesus in our neighbour and we recognise his presence in the breaking of bread. Our love of neighbour grounds our love of God in reality. For us Catholics this is uniquely celebrated in the Eucharist as we come to Holy Communion. In this sacramental action we are affirming that there is no commandment greater than these and we are committing ourselves to live it.

Fr Graham