Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily during the Catholic Campus Ministry fall retreat Oct. 28.
When we say that something is most important, it implies that everything else is less important — and not just as a matter of opinion, but in reality.
In Jesus’ time there was a school of thought that said that all 613 commandments of the Old Testament were equally binding. They all had been commanded by God and he expected us to obey all of them completely. Ritual laws, moral laws, social norms, dietary laws, it didn’t matter. Remember the trouble Jesus got into for not washing his hands before eating? Or the grief they gave his disciples who were plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath?
We see the same thing on the topic of immigration today when people chant: “It’s the law, it’s the law, it’s the law” as if all laws had equal binding force.
In today’s Gospel Jesus states clearly that some laws are more important than others. When a scholar of the Law asks him which is the most important commandment of the Law he gives a double answer: not one but two commandments paired together to form a single most important commandment of the Law because you can’t have one without the other: love of God and love of neighbor, love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. These are not new commandments; Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, but what is new is that he says that they not only constitute the foundation of the other 611, they are also more important than the other 611.
Jesus’ bringing these two commandments together is a great advance, but you know there is a big problem here. Most people think that these are the greatest commandments of all. But they’re not. What does our text say? The greatest commandment “of the Law” meaning of the Torah, of the first five books of the Old Testament. Moreover, loving our neighbor as ourself may or may not be all that much — a lot of people don’t love themselves much at all. Look at how they treat their bodies. Look at all the self-destructive choices they make.
The first half of this commandment will stand — love God with all your heart, soul and mind. But Jesus will later revise the second half when he gives us what is in effect the Greatest Commandment of the New Testament and hence of the whole Bible: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Not just love others as we love ourselves, which is at best limited, but rather to love others more than we love ourselves, to love others as Jesus loves us, which is unlimited, sacrificial and to the death. “No greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for others.” That’s the mystery of the cross. It’s also the revolution of tenderness to which Pope Francis calls us today.
It’s also the witness of Blessed Stanley Rother, the first martyr from the United States who was beatified in Oklahoma City last month. Living for the Lord — loving God more than yourself, with all your heart, mind and soul — that’s the heart of any vocation to the priesthood or religious life or indeed any vocation to which the Lord may be calling you. Sometimes young people feel this stirring in their heart but are afraid to respond to Jesus’ call because they know they are weak and imperfect and that there are things inside themselves that are not the way they ought to be and so they hold back, maybe waiting for a sign or deciding that they need to wait until their inner problems somehow miraculously resolve themselves and they no longer have to struggle with temptation and sin. But that’s not how it works.
It is often in precisely those areas where we most struggle and fail that we experience God’s presence. Not where we are strong, but rather where we are weak, because this is where we know we most need God’s help and it is from there that he begins to draw us to himself.
Do you have a deep wound in your heart or in your personal history? That wound can become the opening through which the Lord enters your life to bring you healing and thus equip you to bring that same healing to others because you’ve experienced healing yourself. Priests and religious don’t just fall out of heaven. We struggle with the same problems as anyone else. But what is beautiful is that by bringing all that we have, and all that we are, and all that we are dealing with to the Lord, and placing all this in his hands, the Lord begins to mold us and heal us and equip us to deal compassionately with those who we will now serve. So don’t let your awareness of personal issues — we all have them — get in the way of you making a full and faithful response to the Lord’s call in your life.
But let’s go back to the main topic of our Gospel reading. Today we deal with many controversial topics rooted in many kinds of laws having to do with morality, social policy, human rights, decisions of our government and rules of our Church, but as we see, while they each have a claim on us, they are not all equally important, and sometimes two laws come into conflict with each other.
Indeed, Pope John Paul II reminds us that beyond a certain point unjust laws not only become unenforceable; they also lose their binding force. This was the case with the Jim Crow laws of the era of legal — though unjust — segregation of the races: God’s law of human dignity — a higher law — conflicted with unjust human laws.
And this is the case today with our broken — and unjust — immigration system, as we see in today’s first reading: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourself in the land of Egypt.” Laws that oppress people unjustly have no binding force and beyond a certain point — like with the laws of racial segregation — it even becomes a sin to obey them. Today Jesus is saying that the love of God and neighbor must be the foundation of all other laws and as we shall see as the New Testament continues to unfold, unjust religious and governmental laws will lead to rejection of Jesus, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, rejection of God whom people were supposed to love with all their heart, soul and mind, and thus to the crucifixion of an innocent man whom they were supposed to love at least as much as they love themselves.
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