Thirtieth Sunday of the Year
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus boldly faces the lawyers out to trip him up. He reduces all 613 commandments in Israelite law to one word: love. We know not what these interrogators hoped Jesus’ answer when asked about the most important law. Jesus responded by quoting the Shema, which Moses taught Israel to hold central, ‘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 mind’ (Dt. 6:4-5). He said it is ‘the greatest and first commandment’ (Mt. 22:38). But what does this love of God look like? How do we know we are living it?
Jesus continues, “and the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Mt. 22:39). To love God means loving what God loves – God’s creation and people and places made by God. It is simple as this. Alfred North Whitehead wrote ‘We are attuned to coordinates wider than personality’. This is behind the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves. Love is the framework for our actions. We are live this as an expression of love, not because it is required. The love we experience through God is demonstrated through love for one another. We are constantly reminded of the interconnectedness with all creation. Beyond our personalities, our first external coordinate is our neighbour. This love sees what is and can assert ‘this is not right.’ We are enlarged and enriched by everyone we care for and take an interest in.
We say this in the light of the recent Referendum of the Heart. First Nations person Michael Long, some years ago after walking from Melbourne to Canberra, asked Prime Minister John Howard, ‘Where is the love for my people?’ We should still ask this after the failure of the referendum. We might also flesh out this question with the current war on Gaza as one people is viewed as human animals and need to be eradicated. We must ask this when people are left hungry, homeless, naked, and abandoned when they seek security. Love always seeks to change the structures and systems that contribute to this inhumanity. It is never just a feeling that leaves people where they find themselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.’ God’s love is never in a vacuum. It comes when the people we encounter challenge us to be peaceful, justice and loving. It comes when we listen for where Jesus hiding and hear the call to protest the oppression of the poor, the violation of people’s dignity, the lack of hospitality to strangers, war making and funding of war in the name of the people. The reading from Exodus puts love in concrete terms that focuses on the destitute-the strangers, widows and orphans, and the poor – people that many of us do not weep with, respond to, and neglect.
Last Sunday’s gospel reminded us that God’s image is imprinted upon each one of us. We face the challenging question: ‘Who is my/our neighbour’? ‘Who is our sister/brother’? How can I/we be a sister or brother to you? Are we were listening and looking? Many political, corporate and religious leaders by their policies try to distract us from seeing the ‘other’ as a sister or brother bearing God’s image. They distort God’s image in creation, deny that we are interconnected, so that we cannot question their destructive and inhuman actions.
There is a clarion call to right relationship before our inability to live peacefully and justly with one another. The first reading focuses on the dehumanised "other," ("aliens"). This is how Israel was treated in exile and is now reminded that oppressing anyone who is among them cannot be justified. Its exile and oppression must lead to a future that is compassionate and just, where the cry of the needy is heard and the disenfranchised actively sought out. Israel must not forget her roots. For Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God it is a disaster.’ We are made increasingly aware of people being dehumanised and the politics of selfishness. Around the world, fair and just treatment of immigrants and refugees continues to be a major challenge as people seek asylum from horrific political and social oppression. In Australia, even descendants of immigrants forget their past in their negative attitudes to new-comers and collaborate thus with our history of colonisation, disenfranchisement and oppression. It is history repeating itself. We need to strive for political, social, economic and environmental justice to abolish sexism, racism, ableism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexual orientation discrimination and the many more forms of discrimination that keep disenfranchised people on the margins.
For many people, religious practice fails to form true compassion. Religious observance, prayer and contemplation must have social consequences because God lives on the margins. Can we hear God say that we are loved as are all our sisters and brothers? Can we then hear the cries of people who are abused, afflicted and brokenhearted at these times? We can choose compassion and solidarity or competition and rampant capitalism. Love of God and neighbour involves compassion that does justice and refuses to cooperate with systems that dehumanise people. It might come down to what we buy or opposing supermarkets that seek to do away with cashiers in favour of self-service, in order to increase profits.
There is a new reign among us: There is neither ‘Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free person’. Nor is there is a gay or straight. There are no outcasts, no second-class. In our loving God we discover that all creation is love-made, love-sustained, and love-fulfilled. When we divide, use power and authority to subject and push down, or think and act imperiously, we inevitably dehumanise people, and de-sanctify everything that God made. The God of our political leaders around the world, and their supporters, says, ‘You shall not wrong [i.e., tell lies, demonise, vilify] strangers and foreigners, nor oppress them [imprison them for doing no wrong, traumatise them in detention centres]. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan [not make war on them]. If you afflict them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. I will hear them, for I am compassionate.’
Pope Francis’ teachings on mercy are new to many people. They are not new but have not been emphasised enough. Francis is reemphasising an old teaching with a new urgency. He reminds us that Jesus came to liberate people and set the oppressed free. He reminds us that kindness is not one action, but a lifestyle.
A Pair of Shoes, Vincent Van Gogh, 1886
The Gospel is clear that law is not the means to the deep transformation needed in our world today. No law, no rule, no piety, no custom, no culture, no tradition, is more important than loving God completely. Relationships create the pathways to change. Loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind is ‘going beyond the coordinates of our personality’ as Whitehead said. It is loving beyond our immediate world of friends, family, and neighbours because neighbour includes the trees and the oceans, the rivers, the wildlife and species that struggle to find habitat, the birds in distress for want of trees, coastlines littered with garbage, as well as people who have become the refuse of brutal economies and vicious politics. These are ‘the neighbour’ that Jesus holds up for us to see over and over again.