Twenty Third Sunday of the Year
Scripture relentlessly reminds us of God’s passionate love for us and of our love for one another, and of our interconnectedness with all people and creation. Yet, with ever increasing polarisation, the space for dialogue, understanding and cooperation for the common good diminishes. Today, we are exhorted to deal with division, restore unity and build mutual understanding, care, and solidarity amongst us. God called Ezekiel to speak out, in an environment where there was little concern for the poor, with a challenging message to those in power. And he calls us to look at ourselves, discover uncomfortable truths that we hide behind, question the status quo, and challenge whatever obstructs God’s plan for humanity. We are called to be our brothers’/sisters’ keepers; to be the voice for the voiceless; and defend the vulnerable.
St. Paul reminds us today we should have only one debt – that of mutual love, especially for the poor, the needy, and the suffering people. For many people God’s passionate and unconditional love for us seems too good to be true. Church statements disturbingly can make this love inaccessible to many people - people who are Queer, divorcees, women, and many others. People have been traumatised by Church teaching. It is for people involved in advocacy to assure people that God’s love is not too good to be true; that the Spirit is not found exclusively in Church statements but found within our hearts and relationships. That reassurance resonates with Pope Francis’ emphatic reminder that we all belong at World Youth Day. His pontificate has largely promoted mercy and patience over punishment and condemnation. It is crucial that we are gathered as one rather than dispersed or in confrontation where we fall into the trap of disparaging one another in personal relationships, in communities or between nations. There are enough people who seem to be sure as to who belongs and does not belong. It is crucial that as we gather in Jesus’ name, listen to Jesus’ voice if we are to identify with his vision of God’s reign and be drawn to make a more humane world. ‘If today you his voice, harden not your heart.’
As we prepare for the Referendum on the Voice to Parliament, ideologies take hold making dialogue difficult. Siloed viewpoints make intellectual and emotional common ground rare. When Jesus promised to be present wherever two or three gathered, he did not underestimate the difficulty of getting people to agree on anything, but assured us of his presence. It is important to note that the gospel today is not proposing a law-and-order solution with punishment. There is disagreement about the Uluru Voice, and about climate change which many fail to see as ‘one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day’ (Pope Francis, Laudato Si'). Like Ezekiel, Francis is calling for bold decisions. We are called to take up our vocation as creation's caretakers and caretakers when our sisters and brothers are not heard and disturb the peace to bring about systemic change.
Matthew today seems certain about community and who belongs too. The heart of the gospel is closer to love and reconciliation than statements, hate messages and narrow dogma. Unfortunately, many loud Christians issue more statements, hate, push for isolation and exclusion, and seek the safety of idolatrous monuments rather than face the truth of history. Though we are meant to be a community of sisters and brothers, we can act if Christianity is a personal or private affair. The Gospel is never exclusive. When we live exclusive lives, our credibility as Christians is diminished. Our call is to be on the lookout for one another. Our relationship with Jesus depends on our relationship with others: family, neighbours, and strangers. ‘As often as you did/did not do it to the very least of my brothers and sisters, you did/did not do it to me’ (Mt 25:40, 45). Clearly, our attitudes and behaviour towards those who are most at risk, most defenceless and most vulnerable must be of utmost concern. Because the Gospel is never exclusive, despite community divisions, conflicts and unacceptable behaviour, the primary concern is the wellbeing of the whole community through reconciliation, not punishment, revenge or vindictiveness. Hard-heartedness can protect us from hearing, feeling, seeing another’s story or point of view. It isolates us from others and keeps them at bay. It can result in an invulnerability that protects us from compassion for others and being hurt. ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart’. Can we hear the voices of people seeking to be treated with respect? Those of women seeking equitable treatment; of Afghan woman and girls wanting an education; or people living with mental illness and addictions to be accepted rather than feared; or the groans of Mother Earth and her people as she and culture are being destroyed. ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart’.
The words attributed to Jesus in the gospel are not his. Matthew’s community came more than 50 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Treating a recalcitrant person like a Gentile or a tax collector reflects the way Gentiles and Roman collaborators were treated. Jesus ate with the very people Matthew considered outsiders and should be shunned. This seems contradictory to Jesus who would probably have sat with the offender or eat with her/him. Sharing meals with tax collectors, street walkers, lepers, Pharisees, and Gentiles was doing the unthinkable, the unexpected, the forbidden. It meant crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, acting counter-culturally, and offending people on all sides of sizzling debates. Jesus emphasised communion, not cutting people off. Refusing to meet with an offender until s/he stops offending was not his view and not the view of many peace groups. It seems to be the way of Pope Francis in the face of opposition to him. It is a lesson for world leaders, e.g., USA and North Korea, USA and China, USA and Iran, or terrorists.
Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish philosopher, enables to see how radical Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbour really was. For Levinas, loving one’s neighbour as oneself, did not mean ‘Love your neighbour because s/he is like you,’ but means, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, because s/he is you.’ In other words, there is no meaningful distinction between oneself and another person. If one shared the same story or history as an ‘enemy,’ one might do the same things that enrage us. We are all interconnected. The call to love one another is a call to touch and be touched, even the sore spots, in the hope of healing. This is how we witness to God’s unending mercy.
There is a lot of grief around. People are dying in their thousands each day by natural causes, by government neglect with poor responses to hunger, deprivation, inaccessible social service, loneliness, repression of human rights and political persecution, as well as sanctions imposed on so-called recalcitrant countries. Then are the living deaths of whistle-blowers such Julian Assange.
When Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth, he was witnessing injustices and inequality. It was in this context that he spoke powerfully of the greatest commandment: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself… love is the fulfilling of the law.’ We might say we live in a loveless system when a few have power of many who are suffering. The love we are called to is to dismantle the very ‘lovelessness’ and cruelty of our society. Matthew’s gospel calls us to gather and defend those who are hurt, harmed, and sinned against. We are called to take the side of those who are offended by exhausting all means for the pursuit of truth and accountability. So, let the greatest commandment be our guide in interpreting today’ gospel. Loving means pursuit of justice and peace. Loving is being united and being committed to work against life destroying structures for others and the planet. Loving is the refusal be in situations that alienate people. Loving involves building community where people’s rights are upheld, and justice and peace become lived realities. As avoidance and withdrawal are Jesus’ way, we are called into the messy work, without judgment, of healing brokenness and broken relationships assured of his enduring accompaniment, even ‘where two or three are gathered.’ The living Christ holds us together despite ourselves for the hard work of reconciliation. By restoring life-giving relationships in the church by his love, Jesus enables us to bear that same love to the world.