Sunday, October 23, 2005

A story of two faith communities: Which Commandment?

Homily written by Father Jay Hugheswho is a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of St.Louis.
30A. Exodus 22:20-26; Matthew 22:34-40.
AIM: To explain the command to love both God and neighbor.

"Which commandment of the law is the greatest?" Jesus is asked in today’s gospel. Many people wonder about that. Is it more important to love God, or to love other people? There are good people on both sides of this question, ready to defend their position with excellent arguments. And the debate can become quite heated, as we see in the following example.

The Pastor and parish council of an affluent suburban parish decided to embark on a half-million dollar renovation of their church, which over the years had become somewhat shabby, and which no longer conformed to the building code. Not many miles away, in the inner city, there was a Catholic Worker house where dedicated Catholics served the poor and homeless and advocated their cause. The Pastor of the suburban parish had encouraged his parishioners to help these poorer neighbors. They had done so generously for a number of years.

When the leaders of the Catholic Worker house learned of the costly renovation program which their benefactors were planning, they suggested that the figure be cut by twenty percent, and the money used to renovate an abandoned inner city tenement to shelter evicted families. This proposal aroused strong feelings on both sides. The suburban Pastor pointed out his parishioners’ long history of generosity to the urban poor, and disclosed that the parish had operated at a deficit for three of the last five years. Leaders of the Catholic Worker house criticized their benefactors for spending large sums to beautify their parish plant, while not far away people were suffering and homeless. Media coverage of the controversy raised the temperature of debate, and led to escalation of conflict. The suburban church was picketed on Sunday, while inside people stood during the Mass in silent protest.

The story I have just told you is fiction. But it is typical of much that we have experienced in recent decades. It is an excellent example of two sharply contrasting views of our Christian faith: the vertical view, and the horizontal view. Both have their passionate defenders.

Few say that our religion has to do with God, or with nothing at all. We come to Mass on Sunday, they argue, not to celebrate what wonderful people we are, to experience human fellowship, or to be uplifted by an interesting, inspirational homily. We come to worship: to be still and know that God is here; that we are his people who owe him everything.

Proponents of the vertical view claim support from Jesus himself. He showed that worship of God is our highest duty by worshiping regularly in the synagogue and in the temple at Jerusalem. He spent whole nights in prayer. When Martha of Bethany complained about her sister Mary sitting and listening to Jesus, leaving all the housework to Martha, Jesus told her that Mary had chosen "the better portion" (Lk 10:42).

So when the Church talks too much about social justice, proponents of the vertical view contend, it is in danger of defiling the sanctuary with worldly things, mixing up earth and heaven, and bringing politics into the pulpit. Don’t we hear enough about such subjects during the week, they ask? When we come to church on Sunday, we want to hear about spiritual things.

Proponents of the horizontal view, on the other hand, say that it is a scandal for the Church erect magnificent buildings when people nearby lack basic necessities. Those who hold the horizontal view also claim support from Jesus. They remind us that Jesus was the friend of the poor and downtrodden. He said, "Blest are you poor ... Woe to you rich" (Lk 6:20 & 24). Jesus attacked the Establishment of his day. If we wish to be faithful to him, they say, we must do the same. Jesus tells us in his great parable of the sheep and the goats, that in judgment we won’t be asked how many prayers we have said, but how much we have done for people in need. (Cf. Mt. 25:31-46)

Which of these two views is correct? Both are right in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. Authentic discipleship of Jesus Christ is not a compromise between the vertical and horizontal views. It is the pursuit of both, at whatever personal cost. We followers of Jesus Christ are people who live neither according to the vertical nor the horizontal view, but at the place where the vertical and horizontal intersect. Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that love of God is "the greatest and the first commandment." But the religion Jesus practiced also emphasized justice for the poor and downtrodden. It did more. Jesus’ religion said that mere justice was not enough. Our first reading shows that Jesus’ religion taught compassion. "If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge," God tells his people in that reading, "you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate." That goes beyond justice. God demands that, like him, we must show to others some of the compassion he shows to us.

Worship of God is primary. But if our worship has no consequences in daily life, it is hypocrisy which cries to heaven for vengeance. On the other hand, service of others which is not performed for love of God, but for the uplifting feeling of serving a noble cause, or some other human ideology, is not genuine service. Those "served" in this way experience not the warmth of compassion, but the cold impersonalism of bureaucracy, which undermines so many of the best intentioned efforts of the welfare state to help the poor and disadvantaged.

We followers of Jesus Christ are called to live at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. That is where Jesus lived. It is also where he died. The cross, which is itself the literal intersection of the vertical and the horizontal, tore Jesus apart and killed him. For us too the attempt to live where the vertical and horizontal intersect will mean pain, rending asunder, and ultimately death. But this is precisely that dying-in-order-to-live of which Jesus himself speaks several times over in the gospels. For behind the cross Christians have always seen, and we must always see, the open portals of the empty tomb. +++


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