Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18:2-4, 47,51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40

Turning Over Stones

Here are some stones I have overturned to see what ideas are underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots.

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law, tested him by asking -- Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

The incident to which the Pharisees are alluding is the public denial of the resurrection by the Sadducees which demanded a response by Jesus (Mt 22:23-33). The outcome of this confrontation simply was this -- When the crowds heard this [the response of Jesus], they were astonished at his teaching (Mt 22:34). This is what is meant by the Saducces being silenced by Jesus.

As in the Gospel reading of last Sunday, to maximize the damage they hoped to level against the reputation and future of Jesus, it is understood that the Pharisees are confronting Jesus in public where the crowds can observe the verbal volleying.

If the rabbis of Jerusalem maintained a never ending conversation at the corner coffee shop near the temple, it was this -- Of the 613 commandments of the law, which of them are the greater commandments and which of them are the less weightier? How could they be applied to everyday situations? With how much latitude could they be interpreted? How well one could make his case to support a particular opinion might step one up a rung or two on the ladder of wisdom and public respect. On the other hand, an impulsive or shortsighted response might cause one to drop a rung or two. A major faux pas could be ruinous -- especially in a public setting.

Evidently, a Pharisee who was particularly gifted in his knowledge of the law was designated as the spokesman of the Pharisees present. Also, the use of the word -- Teacher -- in an address to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is always used with an edge of contempt. Typically, what proceeds this address is not a sincere question; but a kind of quizzical quandary which seeks to publicly discredit Jesus.

Note that the parallel account of this incident which appears in the Gospel of Mark (12:28-34) probably bears more historical accuracy than this account in the Gospel of Matthew. In the Gospel of Mark, the interchange between the legal expert and Jesus is sincere and yields a respectful response from them both whereas the interchange in the Gospel of Matthew is framed as a test which is intended to challenge Jesus. In short, Matthew turns this civil interchange from Mark into a confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus.

Editorially, the confrontation is weak. The can of paint that was used last week to paint Jesus into a corner when the question was posed -- Is it lawful to pay the Census tax? -- seems empty this week. The response that Jesus makes is predictable and noncontroversial leading one to believe that the editing done by Matthew to make this interchange confrontational pales in comparison to the confrontation presented last week involving the Pharisees, the Herodians, Jesus, and the Census Tax. What is asked of Jesus here is not a prioritizing of the commandments, their application, or the latitude by which they can be interpreted; rather what is asked for is simply the superlative commandment. As true and profound as the answer made by Jesus is, it is not startling.

He said to him -- You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

Jesus quotes from the Shema -- the most sacred ethical precept in Judaism -- The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! (Deut 6:4) The next verse continues: Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength (Deut 6:5). Matthew uses Heart, Soul and MInd as compared with Heart, Soul and Strength as stated in Deut 5.

In the time of Jesus, Heart is associated with Mind or Will, Soul is associated with Life, and Mind appears slightly redundant in light of Heart already being mentioned. Nevertheless, what is meant here is that the love of God must be comprised of a total response without distraction or competition.

The second is like it -- You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depends on these two commandments.

What may be implied here is that the fulfillment of the law and the compliance of the prophets is fruitless without first making an approach to these precepts from a Love of God and a Love of Neighbor. This is how the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

From this perspective, these two commandments are indivisible as is stated in 1 John 3:17: If some one who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? In short, to love your neighbor is to also love God and to love God is to also recognize His likeness and image in every neighbor. To personally experience the love of God through your neighbor is also a beautiful channel to trace and recognize.

STORY: My wife is the reason I know God loves me. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful things that I have heard a man say about marriage recently. These words were spoken by the owner of a diner where I was having lunch in a little town in Western Massachusetts last summer. Ralph had an opinion about every topic which surfaced during our conversation. The topics were many and he moved through them like a kid opening Christmas presents on Christmas morning. When he said all he had to say about a topic he tossed it aside and moved on to the next. In about an hour we had touched upon the church, religion-in-general, God, love, relationships, fidelity, fate, homilies, vocations, celibacy, and married priesthood to name a few.

He said a lot of things that evening; but I will never forget what he said about his wife and God in a single sentence; for it struck me as a beautiful transposition of how we love God by loving others. That is, Ralph clearly saw that God loved him BECAUSE of this woman that God placed in his life, and THROUGH this woman that was placed in his life. The connection was concrete, immediate and spoken as a matter of fact. My wife is the reason I know God loves me. Beautiful.

STORY: A rather eccentric looking young man donning an old brown suit and holding a small, worn, stickered suitcase walked into the center of town spun around a few times in the middle of the common and then looked up to the skyline. Fixing his eyes on the closest church steeple, he immediately made his way to the front door of the rectory beside the church. He knocked on the door and asked to speak with the pastor. When the pastor met him in the parlor, the young man rose to his feet and immediately stood on one foot. Wearing a curious expression, the pastor asked how he could help the man. The young man said -- I have come very far and wish to settle in this town and join your church; however first I would like you to instruct me in the entire faith as I stand on one foot. Assessing the man to be deranged, the pastor promptly showed him the door.

Returning to the town common to repeat his spinning ritual, he headed in a new direction to the nearest church steeple. He made his way to the front door of the rectory and repeated his request to speak to the pastor: I have come very far and wish to settle in this town and join your church; however first I would like you to instruct me in the entire faith as I stand on one foot. Determining the young man to be irrational he also showed him the door.

A third time the young man repeated his spinning ritual and headed toward another church steeple and knocked on the door of the rectory. An old, slouched and limping, white-bearded pastor answered the door and showed him into a sitting room. The young man repeated his request saying: I have come very far and wish to settle in this town and join your church; however first I would like you to instruct me in the entire faith as I stand on one foot. The pastor looked at him through timeworn but wise eyes and smiled saying: Love God, love your neighbor -- the rest is all commentary. At that the young man settled into town and joined the church.

HOMILY: The answers to the question: How do you love your neighbor? will be varied and many according to who is asked. Many examples should come to mind even if they are not necessarily examples acquired by first-hand experience. For example any of these may do: Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely, surprising someone who is down in the dumps with flowers, reading a book to a child, pulling over to help a stranded motorist, welcoming new neighbors, visiting someone in a hospital or nursing home, helping someone cope with loss or tragedy. The answers to the question are immediate. It is not a mind-bending query.

On the other hand, how about the question: How do you love God? The answers may not come to mind as easily. Do you love God by praying? Do you love God by kneeling for a long time? Do you love God by appreciating a sunset? Do you love God by burning incense and chanting psalms? Do you love God by singing churchy hymns in a cavernous cathedral? Do you love God by drawing a beautiful picture of a scene from the Bible? Do you love God by suffering though a homily? I suspect that the love of God could be found in every one of these actions; but it seems like the most immediate way to love God is to love a neighbor and many times this is not an obvious connection. Every neighbor bears the likeness and image of God and possesses the highest dignity by being a special creation of God. A homily which drives this point home would be useful to any congregation.

STORY: Reginald Fuller, age 28, had just been installed as the newest Eucharistic minister in an old, ethnic parish in the inner city. He was fairly new to the parish, moving to the city after landing a job in a large downtown hospital and research center. He was glad to volunteer for this ministry and was eager to begin on the morning of his first day off and bring Eucharist to the elderly and to the home-bound who lived in the area of the parish territory -- about 15 city blocks.

He felt special carrying the ciborium filled with hosts outside of the mammoth church doors and began to make his way down the busy city streets. Half way through his visits through the neighborhood he decided to take a newly learned short cut through an alley in order to get to an area nursing home before they began serving lunch to the residents. He turned a corner and walked into a wall of gang members who began to threaten him and question the masculinity of his walk and his speech. Reginald held tightly on to the ciborium; but when he was shoved against the wall he lost his balance and the hosts were strewn about the alley, the garbage pails and under the feet of the gang members who ground them into the dirt and pavement. He was badly beaten, and faced a long recovery in the hospital that he was employed by with a broken nose, collarbone, arm, bruised ribs and a lung contusion.

The Catholic community was outraged at this news and especially by the desecration of the Blessed Sacrament. The story was picked up by the city newspaper and even made its way into national newspapers through the Associated Press. Pressure was put on the Bishop of the diocese to release a statement to reporters at a news conference. After some deliberation the Bishop agreed to meet with reporters and made the following statement: The Church is saddened at this senseless act of violence and by the disrespect and desecration of the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament; however we are quite sure that God will survive. Who we are more concerned about at this time is Mr. Reginald Fuller and the presence of God in him. We ask for your prayers that Mr. Fuller recovers from his serious injuries and that we recognize the violence done to the image and likeness of God in him.

HOMILY FOR CHILDREN: In a land far away there were no such things as books and paper. Instead, all of the stories ever imagined were posted for people to read in houses. When a new story was finished, workmen would listen to the story and paint each sentence on narrow strips of paneling in words 8 inches tall and hang them in the rooms of a house. The length of each chapter would determine the size of each room and the length of the story would determine the size of the house. There existed one house for each story ever imagined.

People would gather from near and far at all hours of the day to read particular houses. Some houses would evoke an air of mystery -- comedy -- tragedy -- or horror depending on what kind of house it was.

The greatest fear in this land was that of fire; for a fire could make a story disappear forever -- especially if the author was not still living. For this reason, the fire department was very fast and very courageous.

It happened one day that a lightning storm had caused three different houses to catch fire at once! What made things worse is that the third house to catch fire was the house of the Bible -- the most widely visited and well loved house there was.

By the time the first fire fighter got to the house it was engulfed in flames. But he was a courageous, fast, and smart fire fighter. He knew exactly which room to run into and which sentences he would rip off the wall to save. He ran up the steps to the top floor and pushed open the doors of Matthew. He found the twenty second chapter and pried off verse 37 and verse 39. Narrowly escaping with his life he emerged out of the front doors of the burning house covered with ash but gripping tightly onto the two sentences he saved.

When he was asked why he had chosen those particular sentences he replied -- If we have these sentences, we can probably remember all of the stories and rebuild the house. But without these, we would be lost. Every story has to do with these two sentences: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart. And, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

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