Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Exodus 22:20-26
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians 1:5-10
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 22:34-40
Whenever I taught morality class I liked to set the stage for what we were to do throughout the semester by placing the course in a specific context. I would first have us read together the story of the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. In that story Mary goes over to one of the servers at the wedding reception, points to Jesus and says to the server, “Do whatever He tells you to do.” I would then say that our entire course is summarized by that one statement.
I would then ask each section of sophomores what was the greatest commandment. Their answer never varied: love your neighbor. An understandable answer, especially if you subscribe to the view that if you cannot love the neighbor that you can see, how can you love the God that you cannot? Yet, that approach ignores one extremely important piece of data: Jesus said that "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.”
Invariably, the more thoughtful, inquisitive or argumentative among the crowd would either ask why that was the case or would argue against the order laid out by Jesus. As with parenting, teaching loses a lot of credibility when it falls back on the “because I said so” sort of answer that make sophomores roll their eyes, so I avoid that line of reasoning at all costs.
Fortunately, years ago I heard a talk by Monsignor William Smith, the late rector of Dunwoodie Seminary, the major seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. In this talk on the moral life he made a number of stellar comments, worthy of quoting in a variety of circumstances, but the one that was most appropriate for my sophomores was, “God will always send you to your neighbor, but your neighbor will not always send you to God.” Simple, yet profound.
If we focus our attention, first and foremost, on our neighbor we can establish wonderful relationships with our fellow humans, but we need not have any connection with God. In fact, a common substitute for love of God, as seen in the lives of many people, is the doing of good for a neighbor in need. Acts of charity and social justice can easily take the place of traditional religious activities if performed outside the context of love of God. The God who we do not see can easily fade into the distance when confronted with the neighbor who we can see.
In truth, the only way to truly love one’s neighbor is to see that love as an outgrowth of the love of God. When we don’t see the face of Christ in each neighbor, then we can forget that it is our neighbor that we are serving and not a cause or ourselves. To see Jesus in a person we feed in a soup kitchen or to see Jesus in a person holding a help sign at a freeway exit ramp ensures that they are seen in the proper context. Whatever thoughts we might have about their worthiness to be in the soup line or the possibility of them scamming us for a few dollars become secondary – after all, this is Jesus that we are helping.
So the order is important, and not for the sake of God – He has no ultimate need of our love – but for the sake of us, and especially for the sake of those who among us are the most vulnerable.