As religious belief is increasingly trivialized in our secular world, we priests sometimes get caricatured as being too fixated on the “rules” of Catholicism. It’s not uncommon these days, even within the walls of our own parishes, for someone to remind us that we live in 2017 and times are a-changing, that some of the Scriptures just don’t really apply anymore, and that Jesus would indiscriminately accept all people without judgment and so should we. They are quick to remind us that we are all sinners, as though that in itself were the end goal in a journey toward mediocrity rather than true holiness. People’s assessment of religion so readily becomes a mixed bag of half-truths and pop-psychology that it is divorced from the true dynamism of the Gospel. Now, I certainly don’t deny the claims to being a sinner, and have never advocate stern judgment of those around me not at the same time tempered with deep mercy, but questions about religion are sometimes starting to feel more and more like the string of traps set by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scholars of the Law in the Gospel stories preceding this Sunday’s pericope. And though one prays for the divine inspiration to respond with all the charity and wisdom of our Lord in today’s Gospel passage, the questions themselves are becoming so much more revealing.
The great challenge posed to Catholicism today is that we are overly fixated on the rules. Though the problem certainly has at times infected the clergy, whether inside or outside the Church, it’s present wherever someone reduces the teaching of Christ to one of the hot button issues. And often, it becomes for them a great stumbling block. “Why won’t the Church accept gay people?” “What do you mean I can’t receive communion if I’m living with my girlfriend?” “Who are you to tell a woman what she can or can’t do with her own body?” The questions have been asked so often they almost sound tired. Yet you can’t help but hear in them the same vein of the Pharisees and Sadducees of long ago: “Should we pay the temple tax or not?” “Whose wife will she be in the Resurrection?” “Which of the commandments is the greatest?”
Of course, those questions all have their place and warrant a good answer. Some people are genuinely struggling with these stumbling blocks and need to be led over them. But the challenge to us comes in the way the questions are posed, in isolation from any lived relationship with Jesus Christ. Religion has been reduced to an ethic, and it begins to feel like that for people. Our conversation about norms and rules, morality and doctrine is spoken in a vacuum, and those with whom we dialogue are often waiting for us to step into the trap so that they can catch any logical inconsistency as a means of justifying themselves in their position or (worst case scenario) dismiss the whole religious thing outright.
When Jesus is asked tough questions in the Gospels, he re-frames the questions in terms of ethos rather than mere ethic. We read in St. John Paul II’s writings that, “the Christian ethos is characterized by a transformation of the human person’s consciousness and attitudes” (TOB 45:3). Today’s Gospel, the test of the scholar of the law, provokes a greater commandment, a transformed consciousness and attitude, that then underlies all the other commandments: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” What other commandment would make any sense, which one would feel like anything, but a burdensome obligation, if not first flowing from a deep union with and love for our Heavenly Father? The greatest commandment touches on a new horizon of man’s consciousness. It is grounded in his original solitude before God; he is the “subject of the covenant,”a “partner of the Absolute,” “Man is ‘alone’: this is to say that through his own humanity, through what he is, he is at the same time set into a unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God himself” (TOB 6:2). Jesus leads with the love of God as the greatest of commandments, because He knows that only if it is borne from love will obedience be seen as an invitation rather than an obligation. From that original solitude that is man’s most unique heritage, the personal adherence to the God of the covenant becomes the true motive for observing whatever other ethic.
The same could be said for the commandment that is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, the Lord first establishes the ethos of the law in that call to communion between my neighbor and myself. Man’s solitude before God makes him aware that he is unique among the animals, incapable of finding a helpmate suitable for him, and only in one who is “at last bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” will he find the mutuality of love for which he yearns. Once my neighbor becomes for me a person, one to whom I may entrust my heart, it is then that I am capable of observing the ethic of the law toward them in any meaningful way.
Thus the Lord overcomes the caricature of a religion fixated on rules. St. John Paul II reminds us that “love and life according to the Gospel cannot be thought of first and foremost as a kind of precept, because what they demand is beyond man’s abilities. They are possible only as a result of a gift of God who heals, restores, and transforms the human heart by his grace” (VS 23). Perhaps the great frustration with the Church’s moral teachings today stems from the fear of living the ethic without a genuine dependence on God’s grace. If our modern day Pharisees and Sadducees aren’t looking at Jesus while trying to live the law, it’s easier to resent the law for being difficult than it is to embrace it as a true call to deeper holiness. And though we know that we can do nothing without God’s grace, too often in trying to offer a convincing apologetic for the Church’s moral teachings, we slight the heart of it all by not helping our people to transcend the ethic to first discover the ethos of the law. St. John Paul II calls us to do more, pointing out that “ethos makes us, at one and the same time, enter into the depth of the norm itself and descend into the interior of man, the subject of morality… To reach it, it is not enough to stop ‘on the surface’ of human actions, but one must penetrate precisely the interior” (TOB 24:3). We go to that interior, because we find Christ there, who reveals man to himself and makes clear his supreme calling. If we love our people as spiritual fathers, we cannot allow them to see us only as Pharisees obsessed with rules. Rather, our job is to gently recognize in them their own attachment to the rule instead of to Christ, and to help them to descend deeply into the interior of their actions so that they may find there the God of the Covenant who calls them constantly to an ever more abundant life.
To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Bobby Krueger is the pastor of St. Leonard Parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago. At the Institute, he has participated in TOB I, II, and III, as well as the TOB and Priestly Identity Clergy Enrichment Retreat. He was ordained a priest in May 2012.