Sunday, November 4, 2012

God and Neighbor

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.

Take to heart! History attests how faithfully the Jewish People have followed this command of the Lord for all these thousands of years – in good times and in bad, in prosperity and in poverty, through centuries of persecution almost to the point of extermination.

So certainly there was nothing surprising in Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question. Of all the 613 commandments, there was really little doubt as to which should count as the first of all.

The scribe had only asked Jesus which was the first of all the commandments. But, without being asked, Jesus added another: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Both were taken from the Torah – the first from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the second from the book of Leviticus. So neither commandment was new or unfamiliar to the scribe or anyone else in the audience. The novelty, if there was one, was in the way Jesus joined the two together. In doing so, Jesus expressed in words one of the implications of what God had done in joining together God and humanity in Jesus himself. In Jesus, God has joined us where we are, on our own turf, so to speak. In Jesus, God himself has become our neighbor. So we cannot possibly loved God and be unwilling to love our neighbor.

This seems like an especially fitting Gospel for this 1st Sunday in November, when our attention is especially being called to our responsibilities as citizens. Political choices – whom or what party to vote for, who should benefit from tax policies, what to spend on and what not to spend on – all such choices are ultimately moral choices that express what we value, whom we care about enough to include and whom we’re willing to leave left out, and what kind of nation we want to be. We make such choices all the time, of course, but seldom so dramatically as on Election Day.

The weather has dominated the news in much of the country this past week and in our national media. Of course, we talk about the weather and complain about it all the time. One reason for that is that it is something we really can’t control and the effects of which we all share in. At best, most of the time, we comfort ourselves by taking shelter from nature's fury. Hurricane Sandy and the many other major storms that increasingly characterize this time of climate change, have reminded us how ephemeral our shelters are, how fleeting the profits we prize so much, how vulnerable the structures we rely upon, how interconnected and dependent we are on one another, how helpless and defenseless we are alone, how desperately we need government to keep us together and marshal our common resources for the common good.

A young person once asked me: Why study about Jesus? He’s dead, after all! Now, as a former political scientist and as a lover of history, I really do believe it is worth it to study the past – even (indeed especially) about people who are dead. But, more important than that, as a Christian, I believe Jesus is not dead but alive! That said,  I also recognize that the only way that most people are ever going to believe that Jesus is alive is if the community that calls itself Christian really means what it says – when it says that Jesus is alive – and communicates that message by taking seriously Jesus’ joining of the 2 Great Commandments.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that the shared challenge of citizenship is to consider the totality of one’s life – not just private life but our entire involvement in world we are part of – consider the totality of one’s life in the terms defined for us by the 2 Great Commandments, uniting our relationship with God and our relationship with one another.
Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 4, 2012.

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