During my earlier years as a priest in Nigeria, I lived with a pastor whom everyone considered to be a tough guy. However, on a very close examination, one could see reasons in some of his extreme actions and reactions. One fateful morning after breakfast, the priest, who liked his title, Monsignor (may God rest his soul), asked me to escort him to the church to check out the sound system and other appliances.
Inside the church, we could see some people praying before the blessed sacrament reposed in the tabernacle. He interrupted them by asking for an audience. Raising his voice, a little higher, he asked those who were present for the morning mass which started at 5:30 am and ended by 6:45 am to stand on one side and those who just arrived to stand on the other hand. Looking at his wristwatch, he announced: “It is 10:45 am, those of you who came for morning mass, it is time for you to go home, you have prayed enough, God is not deaf, the others who just came can stay but not too long.”
I was amazed at the dismissal remarks and sensing it he tells me that some people are using the church as an excuse for them not to carry out some other responsibilities. “How would someone leave the house at 5.am and stay in the church forever, leaving out domestic responsibilities and other things”, he added. He cited numerous instances where mothers would abandon their children at home and come to sleep before the blessed sacrament in the name of prayers. “This is a clear example of loving God and hating your neighbor,” he concluded.
In the Gospel Reading today (Matthew 22:34-40), our Lord gives an enduring teaching on love. Last Sunday, our Lord was “forced” to comment on paying taxes to Caesar by a joint conspiracy team of Pharisees and the Herodians. This Sunday, a lawyer representing the Pharisees wants him to state which is the greatest commandment in the law. We know that God gave Ten Commandment (Ex.20:1-17) and all of them are equal having the same weight and value. The intention was for him to “force” our Lord Jesus Christ to make a preference for one in opposition to the rest so that they could fault him.
Our Lord’s answer to the question gives an excellent summary of the commandment with the phenomenon of love as the foreground. Our Lord’s answer to the question runs thus:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
The Lord’s answer to the question comes from two Old Testament passages:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deut.6:4).You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev.19:18).
The background to the Gospel narrative tells us that the Pharisees wanted to put Jesus Christ to the test when they heard that he silenced the Sadducees. From our Lord’s answer, he instructed them to pay attention to their neighbors. It is not enough to claim love for God by being in the Synagogue all day. We can understand this better if we read Matthew (23:14; 23). Here our Lord condemns the Pharisees and the scribes for oppressing widows and the helpless and for a pretense, make long prayers. They pay tithes but neglect justice and mercy.
Today, the First Reading (Exodus 22:20-26) invites us to consider the widows and orphans. These stand for those who need our love and care. We are challenged to start loving God from our neighbors. Often, we profess our love for God, but we fail to activate that love starting from people around us. Some people could stay for hours running in the Church, but find it difficult to spend a minute or two with someone who may need just a little attention. We are often lovers of God but haters of neighbors.
As we celebrate today, let us be mindful of the fact that our Lord’s instruction about the greatest commandment has two branches; the love for God with everything (heart, soul, and mind) and the love for our neighbor. Doing one and leaving the other is incomplete. Let us spread the love; God wants us to discover Him in our neighbors, in the people around us, in our family, in our colleagues, in our classmates, in the church community, and humanity. Somewhere I read that we lie when we say we love God and hate our neighbor (1 John 4:20).
May the love of God abide with you always as you spread His love. Have a glorious Sunday and a wonderful week ahead.
Prakash Reddy CMF