Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish

Browsing Fr. Norm's Homilies

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

           You’ve got to hand it to those scribes and the Pharisees.  They did know their Jewish law, and they didn’t, as so many seem to do today, ignore it.  They took each and every one of the 630 Jewish laws with utmost seriousness.  I do believe that most Pharisees were honestly trying to serve and obey God and to live holy Jewish lives.  With that said, I am amazed at how annoying some of them generally made themselves by constantly asking Jesus nitpicking questions about the law and commandments.  They loved substituting minutiae for substance.  Perhaps it was honest scrupulousness, today known as a form of OCD, enforced by the culture, but my guess is that also for many, there was a disingenuousness to their questions.  With Jesus, they were obviously weaponizing their law to use it against him.  Clearly, there was no heart, and frankly no brains to their approach.  Their goal was simply to win the argument, so as to humiliate the Lord and destroy the authority he had among the people.

            So I’m sure that Jesus expected another brainless question from our scribe in the Gospel story.  What he heard was at first predictable.  “Which is the first of all the commandments?”  I’m pretty sure that Jesus must have said to himself, “Oh, here we go again, this guy is looking to know the least he can do to get by and to trap me in the process.  He’s another troublemaking lightweight.”  So, possibly expecting an argument, Jesus answers the scribe’s very vague      question not by taking the bait but rather, with a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy that Jesus knew the man could not deny or refute: instead of a string of ‘thou shalt nots,’ the scribe hears instead: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.”  Expecting a string of negatives, the scribe instead hears a very joyful and positive command, to paraphrase: ‘you shall practice universal love if you call yourself a lover of God, anything less renders you a liar.’

            The two men stared at each other.  It was like a blinking contest.  But the scribe began to smile and nod his head.  What do you know, he turns out to be a good scribe, not a hypocrite.  He understood.  Not just intellectually, but with his heart.  He truly understood that being in God’s good graces wasn’t a matter of winning an argument but in loving God completely.  You know who won that contest?  Both Jesus and the scribe did, to be sure.

            So Jesus talks about full and complete love.  But how many of us can muster that depth of love?  Honestly, although human beings are capable of it, face it; most of us fall far short of the depth love of God and neighbor Jesus says God expects all the time.  The ‘what’s in it for me clause’ kicks in constantly.  “I love you God, so God please give me what I’m praying for.”  And if that prayed-for thing doesn’t materialize according to the way one wants it, you’re likely to hear “I’m mad at God, he didn’t answer my prayer, on my terms.”  Can that be what Jesus says the Father expects?

            In our relationships with each other, how often do we really practice what Jesus would regard as ‘unconditional love?’  The “I love you but…” or “I will love you until…” clauses frequently kick in.  Think of the hatred in partisan politics today, whether it be civil or right here inside Mother Church.  The “I love you if I get something back” or ‘I will love you until you disagree with me, then all bets are off,’ is what the moralists would call “conditional love.’  It’s self-interested love, love with conditions.  In my estimation, that kind of ‘love’ is more a matter of personal politics than love.  It's about how to manipulate a situation to one’s own advantage.

So that’s why Jesus was so delighted at the scribe’s understanding answer.  Whether he practiced true unconditional love of God and neighbor afterwards, who can say?  He was a fallen creature just like the rest of us, after all.  But at least he knew what he was supposed to strive for, which is more than can be said for all those Pharisees that hypocritically kept dogging Jesus’ every step with criticisms and intrigue.  In essence, the only thing they really loved was themselves.  Their politics made sure of that.

            There is a beautiful story in Chicken Soup for the Soul about a little girl who was dying of a very rare disease.  Her only hope for survival was to get a blood transfusion from her              five-year-old brother who had survived the same disease and whose body had developed the    antibodies needed to combat the illness.  The doctor explained to the little boy what a transfusion was and asked if he would be willing to give blood to his sister.  He hesitated for a moment and then said, “yes, if it will save my sister.”  As the transfusion progressed he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, along with all the medical staff, as they saw color returning to the little girl’s cheeks.  Then the little boy’s smile faded and with a very serious look on his face he asked the doctor “will I start to die now?”  The boy had misunderstood the doctor and thought that he would have to give his sister all of his blood.  But he was still willing to do it.

            Love is not always a happy, painless, easy, carefree thing.  Love when it’s real love,     requires unselfishness and that’s hard, especially when it is required over long periods of time or when the beloved is, ah, a pain in the neck.

            Unlike many of his confreres, the scribe in our Gospel story was not a hypocrite.  He sought love, to practice love, and to know love.  Instinctively, he approached the Author of Love for guidance, and he received directly the unconditional love of Christ.  He went to the source, the wellspring of love, and he was filled with the living water of Jesus Christ.  If we have any hope of learning how to authentically love as God commands, must do that too, we must        constantly go the well of grace, which is Jesus Christ.  Think what a world this would be if     everybody could just tone down all the nasty and self-serving rhetoric, tone down the hatred, tone down the selfishness and think about what it really means to love one’s neighbor and one’s God with all one’s strength.  Even the ones with whom we disagree.  And we must ask ourselves if we measure up to that standard.  I can say this: there wouldn’t have been all of those hate-prompted massacres we seem to see all the time now if enough people understood the words of Jesus today, and obeyed the command to love.

            So let’s be honest with ourselves as was the scribe who encountered Jesus.  Do we truly wish to live up to the Christian ideal of unconditional love?  It starts with the individual, you and me.  Let’s try to make sure that in our heart of hearts, hatred has no place.  And by example, pay it forward.  If we believe that heaven is a state of unconditional, universal, permanent love for God and neighbor, it’s time to start practicing it now, with the person closest to yourself: you.

May God bless you.

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