Thirtieth Sunday of the Year
In Matthew’s Gospel, at the intersection of two approaches to law, Jesus boldly faces the lawyers out to trip him up by reducing all 613 commandments in Israelite law to one word: love. It must have been a shock to have studies, argued, made applications and even nit-picked to have these 613 commandments reduced to one word and move God's law from a courtroom setting to the street of practical living.
Alfred North Whitehead, a Process Philosopher, wrote ‘We are attuned to coordinates wider than personality’. This is behind commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves. We need to appreciate our own worth, that we are loved by God and that our lives are woven into the life force of the rest of creation. But we are constantly reminded of the interconnectedness with all creation. Beyond our personalities, our first external coordinate is our neighbour. Our lives are enlarged and enriched by everyone we care for and take an interest in.
This love sees situations and says ‘this is not right’ and questions why people are hungry, homeless, naked, migrating in the search of asylum. It then seeks to find ways to change the structures and systems that cause this. 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 does not come to us in a vacuum but through the people who are part of our lives, and those who challenge us to be peaceful, justice and loving. We need constantly listen for where Jesus is hiding in the scriptures. What do they hear when the scriptures 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 very concretely. It is about the destitute-the strangers, widows and orphans, and the poor. These are people that for that many of us do not weep, respond to, and turn away from.
Last week, Jesus reminded us that God’s image is imprinted upon each one of us. We are challenged with the question: ‘Who is my/our neighbour’? ‘Who is our sister/brother’? A response might be how can I be a sister or brother to you? Would we need to ask if we were listening and looking? Would it be necessary if our hearts were touched by the other? Do we want to know? Many of leaders in politics and religious leaders by their policies try to make us forget that the ‘other’ is a sister or brother made in God’s image. They hide them away!! They distort the revelation of God in creation so that we will not question their destructive and inhuman actions. Love of God and neighbour is not about following rules but recognising that we are interconnected. We cannot abide any system that treats the ‘other’ as different from ourselves. It is this deep awareness that paves a new way of being.
Israel was never allowed to forget her roots: having herself been in exile and oppressed she must enter a future that is compassionate and just, listen to the cry of the needy, and look out for the disenfranchised. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, ‘The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God it is a disaster.’ Religious observance, prayer and contemplation must have social consequences that reveal the God of compassion and justice. We are made increasingly aware of people being dehumanised and the politics of selfishness. For many people, their religious practice has failed to form them into truly compassionate people. In our prayer and contemplation can we hear our God say that we are loved as all our sisters and brothers are love. Can we allow the God speaks today and hears the cries of the afflicted, the oppressed, the abused, the brokenhearted; the cries of the suffering widows and single mothers; people on unfamiliar soil treated and called by that detestable word ‘aliens and left to rot on Australia offshore detention centres, or European hell-holes, or parents separated from their children on the US-Mexican border. 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. God's existence is not separate from love practised between people. We express it when we treat those who do not belong as if they did belong whether, as we heard in recent weeks as unemployed workers who worked for a short period of time, received given a full day’s pay, or street people who never expected to be invited were invited to a wedding feast. There is a new reign among us: it is a very earthy kind of God-community. 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 people - even those who are caught up in evil. 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 as if we are superior, 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 seem to be new to many people. But they are not new…. just not emphasised enough. He is reemphasising an old teaching with a new urgency. Jesus came to liberate people and set the oppressed free. This is our mission too as asylum seekers continue to live in the shadows and feel silenced and oppressed.
Jesus reminds us that no law, no rule, no piety, no custom, no culture, no tradition, is more important than loving God completely. None of these can contain God. To love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, is to love beyond our immediate world of friends, family, neighbours – to go beyond the coordinates of our personality, as Alfred North Whitehead said. Our 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.