Among the many struggles of being a person-in-the world today is that we walk a line of uncertainty regarding our loyalties and obligations. We undergo a rapid, ill-conceived and poorly argued national dialogue (or, more correctly shouting match) over what is due to society. Removal of historical statues, rewriting of school textbooks, protesting during the playing of the national anthem, and the proper etiquette for displaying the flag, have hit crisis boiling points.
When the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus into commenting on the social obligations of a Jewish person due to the Roman Empire of his day, he brilliantly skirted the issue, while at the same time delivers significant instruction for his listeners.
There is also an increasing tension within the Church as to how to respond to many of these, and other, social issues. On one hand, many faithful and members of the broader society prefer that the Church remain silent – honoring the so-called “wall of separation” – while others decry the Church for its silent hypocrisy and for not speaking boldly as they presume that Jesus did.
Christians are called to have a necessary tense relationship with the world. This is what Jesus emphasized in this confrontation with the Pharisees. It is an uncomfortable tension for us who, for most of our lives, walked comfortably in the world. We presumed this was a Christian culture, even if vestiges of anti-Catholicism were apparent. More and more subtle compromises chipped away at that comfort level. Small compromises are, unfortunately, easy for many to make. Once a pattern has been set, then it is very difficult to draw a firm line that will not be crossed. Personal protection, and certainly for many in public service, political gain, take precedence over principles and the demands of the moral life.
This conflict becomes more and more real over time. Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World, never ceases to be new, brilliant and spot-on in foreseeing many of the issues that we face in the world and in the Church today:
(43) “This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. Long since, the Prophets of the Old Testament fought vehemently against this scandal and even more so did Jesus Christ Himself in the New Testament threaten it with grave punishments. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God's glory.”
Oct. 29 – Love of God comes before we can love our neighbor
When I first moved into my apartment in Monmouth Beach, I noticed that most of my neighbors had a small metal relic on their door jambs. Known as a mezuzah, it contains the admonition from Deuteronomy chapter 6 post the prayer – called the Shamah – on their doorposts. Jesus recites this same prayer in this week’s Gospel: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone, therefore, you shall love the Lord God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength.” This prayer is recited in the morning and in the evening. Observant Jews follow the command of God to Moses to post this prayer as a sign to the world of the covenant, a reminder of the Laws of Moses. The Shamah is called the greatest commandment, because it is given to the people through Moses.
I often wondered if I should hang a small Crucifix next to my doorpost, not as an act of defiance or mockery, but also to make the statement of faith. Jewish people are very comfortable, even in times and places where anti-Semitism still remains rampant, in wearing and exhibiting the signs of their tradition and religious identity. Catholics are often much less inclined towards such outward displays. We might see Crucifixes being worn or a Rosary hanging from a car mirror, but that is often more a displayed as a connection to a rap artist or a piece of jewelry than a sign of religious conviction.
The first of the Ten Commandments reminds us to place God first in everything. It is our love of God – a reflection of God’s love for us – that places the most important demands upon us. This admonition seems less and less demanding as we have relegated our religious conviction and experience of faith to church – one hour per week—if we are lucky.
Jesus balanced the first admonition with a second: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This covers the rest of the Laws in the Old Testament. The sampling of the Law we hear in Exodus provides a glimpse into the ways in which the Law defined the social relationships of the Israelites.
From Jesus we learn that there is a clear essential relationship between our love of God and our love of neighbor. Jesus takes obligations that were seen as separate and unites them together in necessary ways, so that to be a follower of Jesus means that love lies at the center of all our relationships.
While some will argue that at different times of history, or within different religious traditions, the love of God overbalanced the love of neighbor to the detriment of the latter, we must also be wary of those who would overcompensate now and emphasize solely the social dimension of religious faith.
Recently I was a part of a conversation where the principle point of one of the participants drew attention to the idea that if we wanted to engage a particular group of people in the Church we need to offer more service opportunities. Church is unnecessary and boring, but feeding the poor is where it is at. While is seems redundant to point out that the Church feeds more poor people each day than any other, and all other social organizations, it still misses the point. Anyone can feed the poor, build houses, or care for the elderly and infirmed. It is the primary role of the Church, as an assembly of believers, to love God, “with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength.”
If we are to authentically love our neighbor and be of service to our neighbor, we must first love God. And while that means that we must also love our neighbor, it primarily calls us to prayer, adoration, praise and worship. It means that we understand that all we do and all that we are belongs first to God for it comes from God. Our challenge is to have a life of prayer and expresses and enriches our love God so that we might more authentically love our neighbor. When we do that, then not only are we better people, the love that we live and express for our neighbor becomes real and not simply a masquerade of self-love.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.[[In-content Ad]]