Love Thy Neighbor - Or Else?
Homily for October 29, 2017 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A
by Dcn. Bob Bonomi
When I first looked at the readings for today I thought, “Finally! The makings for a good fire and brimstone homily!” I mean, just look at our first reading: if you wrong any widow or orphan, God will KILL you with the sword. Doesn’t sound like a kind and loving God to me. Pretty Old Testament stuff. A god of vengeance and judgment.
And then we come to our Gospel passage: Love God and Love our Neighbor. And Love yourself – don’t forget that. Makes me think back to my younger days of hippies and flower power. Did God change?
Even in the New Testament, we tend to gloss over Jesus’ admonitions to his followers about what happens to those who ignore God’s call for justice. In Matthew’s Gospel alone we hear about the parable of the sheep and goats: "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" and his admonition “do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” And how about the one about entering “through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it”?
Yep. Hell is Real, and there will be some who will discover it first-hand. And the quickest way to find out is to disobey the two commands we hear today.
And that is a real challenge, isn’t it? We as a society have made it almost impossible to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have set our personal standards too high; we’ve allowed the poorest of the poor to drop too low. It is easy to fear what we don’t know and it is hard to love what we fear. We live in a world of violence and hatred; a world of greed and jealousy, a world that distrusts anything that it cannot control. How can I love my “neighbor”?
Further, we often don’t even know our “neighbors” in the personal sense. A priest friend of mine often states that the downfall of civilization began with the invention of the air conditioner – prior to it, people would go outside in the evening and sit on their porches while the house cooled down from the daily cooking and other activities, and they would greet their neighbors as they walked their dogs or played with their kids. Kids would climb trees and play ball in the streets; we’d run in and out of each other’s houses like they were our own.
Nowadays we have sanitized our kids’ activities to keep them “safe” while the streets are now less safe than ever before. We lock doors and erect privacy fences which isolate us from each other. We live in fear and often won’t even answer a knock at the door – we now have electronic “eyes” so that we can remotely see who is coming to our house even when we’re miles away. It’s very difficult to love those you do not know. And if I can’t love those closest to me physically, how can I love those who are half a world away?
Do you know what the opposite of Love is? It isn’t hatred, or even fear. It’s INDIFFERENCE. We don’t have to hate someone to not love them. All we have to do is ignore them. Be apathetic to their problems. Don’t care one way or another. THAT’s the opposite of love – and it is the real danger that we all face today.
On September 27 Pope Francis launched a global campaign to support migrants and refugees around the world called “Share the Journey”. Two weeks ago, the bishops in the U.S. asked Catholics around the country to help kick off the campaign by taking part in a week of prayer and action for migrants and refugees from October 7-13. Did you respond to their call to action? It’s all about loving our neighbors.
And what about loving God? If the greatest command is to Love God, what does that say about us? It’s much more than a feel-good, fuzzy feeling; how do we orient ourselves to God?
I just finished reading a book called, “God is Not Nice”, by Ulrich Lehner. In it, Lehner points out that we’ve sanitized God to the point that we think of Him as a “nice guy” and we no longer afford Him the respect that is His due – it isn’t about God being a vengeful god or a judgmental god or a complacent god or a god who is aloof and who doesn’t get involved directly in our lives. It is about a proper orientation toward the Creator of the Universe and the Master of our Lives. A God of Infinite Mercy but one of Justice as well.
The story of our faith shows us a god who is intimately in love with His creation and especially in us, with whom He has shared the joy and stewardship of His creation. A god who desires us and wants us to spend eternity with Him. A god who shows us just how we can share that love and gives us, as we hear in today’s Gospel, the two most important things we can do in our lives – Love God and Love our Neighbors. And the most important is “Love God”.
One of the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit is “Fear of the Lord”. This isn’t the kind of fear where one is shaking in his shoes; it is akin to wonder (or awe): With it, one is made aware of the glory and majesty of God. At a June 2014 general audience Pope Francis said that this fear “is no servile fear, but rather a joyful awareness of God’s grandeur and a grateful realization that only in Him do our hearts find true peace”. To Love God is to hold Him in Awe and reverence in our hearts.
In Luke’s version of today’s Gospel, scholar of the law asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, and includes the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s not a question about the greatest commandment but how to get to heaven. Same answer.
God commands us to Love. We cannot be indifferent to the suffering of those around us and still love them. Love is a choice; Love is an action. And it is in this love of those around us that we can experience the Love of God for us.