Loving God and our Neighbor
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 4, 2018
I am sure you are all aware that Catholicism is deeply rooted in Judaism. In fact in the very early church Catholicism was a sect of Judaism, and only became distinct after the Council of Jerusalem that took place around 45 AD. Thus we were all shocked and extremely saddened by the events of last Saturday in Pittsburgh, when 11 Jewish people were shot and killed while praying in the Tree of Life synagogue and many more were injured. We must continue to pray for them and their families.
The Jewish religion is a very ancient and very beautiful religion. There are many prayers and rituals that are kept religiously. Perhaps the most important prayer for the Jews is one called the “Shema” [sha-MAH]. This is the first prayer Jewish children learn.
Pious Jewish people pray it twice daily, once when getting up in the morning, and then again just before going to bed at night. It is prayed with hands covering the eyes. The Shema is taken from the Torah, (which is the first 5 books of the Bible) Deuteronomy 6:4 and here it is: “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
This the central prayer of the Jewish Faith. It expresses the core function of the Jewish soul is to listen, to hear. The word Shema is Hebrew for the first word of the prayer: Hear. “The ability to listen” is what enables the recognition
of God’s oneness and the unity of all creation.
In our Gospel today, a scribe comes up to Jesus and asks which the first commandment, the greatest commandment? He is thinking of all 613 commandments in the Torah, or the Law, or the first five books of the Bible. It is no wonder that Jesus picked the “Shema”. He is not telling his followers anything new, anything they never heard before. No, he is quoting what they knew very well, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” One can imagine that as Jesus was reciting this prayer, some of his hearers began moving their lips to say it with him.
The second quote, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, is also from the Torah, Leviticus 19:18. Many Christians do not know that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is an Old Testament commandment. They think that it is only we Christians who are commanded to love our neighbor. No, the love of God and the love of our neighbor are religious principles which we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters.
And yet, after all these thousands of years, we still can’t get it right. There are always all the idols that distract us from loving God, whether it be the golden calf or carved statues, or money, or starving for success, or chauvinism, or human appearance, or possessions, or bigotry, or cell phones, or computers, or tablets.
And what about loving our neighbor. The Bible understands love as a very concrete way of acting. We Christians have been clever over the centuries in convincing ourselves we were actually loving our neighbor, even our enemy, but all the while doing this in such a spiritual way that it has no concrete consequences. Love does not mean a sentimental smile or embracing a stranger.
The Letter of James has sharp words for those who think faith has nothing to do with the daily love of one’s neighbor. He writes, “What does it profit, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith, but does not have works? If a brother or sister is ill clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warm and filled,’ without giving them the things for the body – what does it profit?” The words of James are unfortunately as easy to understand today as they were 2,200 years ago. Unfortunately the growing poverty in the world bears shocking witness to the fact that we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
In conclusion, today’s gospel tells us a lot. The God we must love above all is the same God of the Old Testament and Jesus. We, who recognize there is but one God, means there must be no other ones. We have to refuse to recognize the many idols propagated today. And finally, what this God expects of us is that we love our neighbor, not abstractly, but in a concrete way. As John puts it bluntly, “Anyone who says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, is a liar.” Amen
Fr. Terry Hazel
Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe [the commandments], that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly.
It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens.
[Jesus said,] “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”