Oct 20, 2011

30th Sunday: "Hear, O Israel . . ." plus more

Rembrandt: "Hear, O Israel . . ."

Ex 22: 20-26
1 Thes 1: 5c-10
Mt 22: 34-40

Let’s face it, few of us like to be told what to do, especially when we feel we already know a better way. Having to admit that we do fall short and may have more to learn than we readily admit (pride) is not easy.  It’s not unusual for me as priest to be teased about the higher Divine authority I have to answer to - true for all of us, actually. Not to mention my good Archbishop as well.
This Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew 22 lays out God’s framework for right living. Jesus is confronted by the religious establishment of his time once again: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Mt 22: 15).  It’s not just a casual question but another attempt at a trap.  Just how respectful is Jesus of the ancient Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments? How skilled is he at getting to the heart of God’s clarion call for obedience and the very core of Judaism?

Our Lord never lets an opportunity go unanswered.  He quotes the great “Shema” – the very heart of Jewish faith, the central prayer and the first which every Jewish child learns: “Hear O Israel, the Lord the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  Thus, Jesus reassures his audience that he is well acquainted with the heart of the Jewish faith and knows God intimately; That God is indeed supreme to all things.

Then comes the zinger: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  That English word “love,” is thrown around in so many ways.  We “love” everything from a particular color, to a tasty food, to our pets, our comfy homes, fancy cars, gadget laden cell phones, fast computers, our compatible friends, supportive families, and our interesting work. We just “love” it all.

Yet, it is not a commandment which any Jew is unfamiliar with. Every good Jew was called to love their neighbor.  But Jesus places this commandment to love one’s neighbor on an equal level with love for God. In other words, love of God and love of neighbor are equally compatible and one cannot do one without the other.  The two summarize the entire law.  Beyond love for God and love for neighbor, everything else is just commentary.

It is not necessarily a love, however, that is based in warm and fuzzy feelings. I may not feel especially good about someone or I may have negative feelings about them.  This kind of love is expressed more specifically in the virtue of Charity. The Book of Exodus today reminds us: “You shall not molest . . . oppress . . . not wrong . . .not act like an extortionist . . .” Mercy and right justice above all to friend and foe alike.

In essence, love for God means a fidelity to God, keeping his covenant which is basically a relationship of love that cannot be broken since his mercy, if we seek it sincerely, will be greater than our sinfulness.

As God values our existence so “jealously” that he is unwilling to share us with anything – “Have no other gods before you . . .” (1st Commandment), so must we value the existence of one another.  I once heard the expression: “Every human being has value beyond the worst thing they have ever done.”  It’s a powerful statement that should frame our Christian moral choices even if we find them tough or trying at times.  It all began for us when we heard the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

As a Christian people, marked with the sign of the Cross at our baptism, that indelible “birth mark” of life in Christ, we can do no less.  At the time of baptism, parents who bring their child, or an adult who presents themselves, commit to: “. . . keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us by loving God and our neighbor.” It is that Christian sign of the cross that we should never take for granted. It holds weight because of the One who hung there and rose for us.

In the new English translation of the Nicene Creed we hear the strange phrase, in reference to Jesus: “consubstantial with the Father.”  It is not exactly a word that runs smoothly off our lips or is a part of everyday speech.  Has your doctor ever asked: “How’s your consubstantial these days?” Or maybe your finance manager: “Are these numbers consubstantial with your overall goals?” Obviously not.  It is a specific theological term about the divine nature of Christ as Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and we are privileged to state it.

Its root is historical and is the very reason this fourth century Creed exists.  The first couple centuries of the Church found Christians in more than just mild disputes about the true nature of Jesus Christ.  What was his relationship to God? Was he more than just a prophet if we believe he was both divine and human?  How human?  How divine? Was does it mean to be a God-Man? This was all a “Come Holy Spirit” moment for the early Church.

The term consubstantial essentially explains that Jesus was not made or created in the way that other human beings are made.  That he is: “God from God; Light from Light; true God from true God.” The very controversial heresy called Arianism challenged this perception and threatened to divide the Christian Church.  Arianism made Jesus a kind of lesser god; as a creature of God although a very glorious creature. They said that Jesus was “like” the Father.

But, the prevailing truth held out and the Church definitively supported the great mystery of the incarnation.  That while Jesus became fully a human being, he also retained his full divinity.  So he is, “God from God.”  That Jesus, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, share one and the same divine nature or substance.  In Jesus Christ human nature and divine nature are joined for all eternity and each retains its unique character, albeit Our Lord’s human nature is now glorified and no longer will die or decay.

It is a theological and philosophical handful to be sure and a challenge to wrap our feeble brains around. Although it is a great mystery of faith, I think it reveals to us the overwhelming character of our Trinitarian God: that he is Love itself and calls us into relationship with him and all the rest of humanity.  As our youth so often say, “Awesome!” In Christ Jesus, though, this mystery has been simplified for our understanding until it is fully revealed to us in the life beyond this life.  

This weekend, we might take some time to reflect on our neighbor; in particular on those who I find difficult to be around.  We all have people who challenge us. The person(s) you would rather avoid.  Is it possible to see the face of God in him/her/them? How am I now living out this greatest of all God’s commandments?  Do I just give lip service to my neighbor in need or am I actually acting out in concrete behaviors to see the face of Christ in others?