Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Here is a tweet from a priest that I follow on twitter: “All liturgy should be celebrated solely by the candlelight of beeswax candles in an enormous, dark church filled with the smoke of incense. All parts should be either chanted loudly and solemnly in Latin or said in such a low voice that no one can hear them.” Here was my reply. “At the Last Supper, on which every Mass is based, none of these eccentricities existed!” What is it about us that we like to take what is accidental to Christianity and bring it center stage? And what is it about us that we take what is center stage of Christianity and relegate it to the boundaries?
1. The Core of Religion. We know from the gospels that Pharisaical Judaism dominated the religiosity of Jesus’ time. There were at least two problems with this kind of religiosity: the strict interpretation of the Law, and emphasis on the less important elements of the Law. There are many sayings of Jesus that bring out the problem. For example, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27), meaning that the Law was supposed given for the benefit of human person and not the other way around. It is the human person who is supposed to be saved, not the Law. On another occasion Jesus said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13), meaning that if our religiosity did not make us compassionate and merciful, then the worship we offer has no value in God’s eyes. In today’s gospel, the man who came to Jesus with his question was clearly concerned about the Law. “Which commandment,” he asked, “was the greatest?” Jesus answered his question, but in doing so, he took him beyond the Law. The Law, for Jesus, was about relationships. It was about love. Hence Jesus’ reply, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all of your mind, and all your strength.” Jesus then added a second relationship and made it equal to the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself!” In the lawyer’s question to Jesus, his concern was for legality. In Jesus’s reply to the man, his emphasis was on love. Religion equals loving relationships – two of them: love of God and love of our neighbor. Everything else is secondary.
2. The Meaning of Life and Religion. On the day that we stand face-to-face with God, two scenarios are possible: First, that we followed all the laws and commandments, but we followed them not out of love of God and neighbor, but out of our zeal to be found blameless before God. Second, that we loved God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and we loved our neighbor like God invites us to, and in the process fulfilled all the Laws. Which of these would you like to be? Today’s scripture readings are an invitation to focus our religiosity in the direction Jesus is proposing. The Law does not have the capacity to save us. If we are saved, it will be because of love. This is the core of our faith.
3. Authentic Christianity. These are very difficult days for me. I am struggling at the deepest part of my being. First, on a personal level, I just said goodbye to my very frail father. When I left home, I left with the possibility that it was my last goodbye. I am not sure what the right thing to do was: whether to leave him and return to my church family or whether to take care of my father during his end times. I wonder what you would do? Second, as an immigrant and as a person of color I am struggling with the inhumanity that my fellow human beings and fellow Christians are expressing. What is important – the law or the human person? I clearly think that central to religion is the human person; central to religion is love, compassion, mercy, and goodness. I have learnt this from Jesus. Third, I am deeply pained by the division, the disunity, the hatred, the spite, the condemnation, the violence, the killings, the accusations, the rhetoric of fear and ingenuity, the disrespect, the apathy, the inhumanity… In light of these my struggles, I believe that to be authentically Christian is acknowledge what the enlightened scribe said in response to Jesus, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.' And 'to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mk 12:32-33).
Here we are celebrating this Eucharist. It does not matter whether it is in Latin or Klingon or English; if it with or without incense, in low tone or not. What matters is this: as we celebrate, do we love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength; and, do we love our neighbors as God invites us to love.
Fr Satish Joseph