My friends, the old adage, “This is where the rubber meets the road,” is a very good one to sum up the Scriptures for this 30th Sunday in [Extra] Ordinary Time. From the 1st reading in Exodus, through the 2nd from Thessalonians to the Gospel from Matthew; Moses, Paul and Jesus say the same thing—we must care about the “other”—our neighbor and love them as we would ourselves, in a perfect world. I say, in a “perfect world” because, unfortunately; we don’t, each one of us, always “love ourselves,” but that is another homily.
The people of the book of Exodus were the people of the Exile—they knew what it was to be exiled, to be without a home—to be orphaned. Moses, most likely the writer of Exodus, knew that, this had been their experience, so he could rightly say that, “They should not do this to others.”
Paul continues this theme in his letter to the Thessalonians where he says of himself and his companions, Silas and Timothy; our preaching is not, “a mere matter of words.” Paul and companions were telling the people to not pay as much attention to their words, as to their actions—reminding them of how they acted when they were with them.
Those of you who are raising or have raised or mentored children know that it doesn’t matter nearly as much what you tell them to do as what they see you do and they will remind you of it when the two actions don’t follow each other.
I always remember when our kids were early teenagers, old enough to take care of each other while their parents had a night out. Our kids were raised knowing that when they were out; they needed to let us know where they were and when they would be home. So, when we returned home later than our daughter thought we should; she accosted us with questions and her concern about where we were and why we were late without telling those waiting at home why we would be later than expected. Now, in our defense, this was before everyone carried a cell phone, but that aside; she was right, her errant parents needed to admit!
Paul goes on to say that, “Joy comes from the Spirit”—an off-shoot of not only speaking, but acting in unison with the words, even if it brings, “trials.”
Jesus, in Matthew’s reading today, addresses the Pharisees of his time, who are trying to trip him up, as he points to the Shem—the most significant prayer of the Israelite religion, when they ask him to name the greatest commandment. Jesus rightly answers, “You must love God with your whole heart and soul,” and then adds “mind,” so that the person’s whole being would be engaged and their response would not be a superficial thing. Additionally, Jesus includes the piece that actually gets their prayer in the Shem, into their everyday lives—“There is a second commandment, no less great, you must love your neighbor as yourself!”
Jesus is telling them and us, in no uncertain terms, that they can’t say they love God, whom they cannot see, and not love their neighbors, whom they do see! The Israelite people know this in their hearts as they had the tradition—the belief really, that they were to show care for the traveler, the stranger in their midst—their “neighbor,” in the largest sense, giving them food and filling their needs, should such a “stranger” stop by their home, even if it was their enemy. The Israelites had simply forgotten this and Jesus’ teachings were calling them to task.
Overtime, the laws became very complicated in how a good Jew was to live. It may be of interest for us to recall that in Jesus’ time, there were 613 commandments, addressing practically every movement in one’s day. Additionally, there were 365 prohibitions (one for each day of the year) and 268 prescriptions (one for each bone in the body). This people had come to such a place that they were figuratively, “tied in knots,” and their brother, Jesus, stepped in to say, there are really only two laws you need to observe and on those two, “the whole Law is based and the prophets as well.”
Now, we can imagine how angry, this no doubt, made the Pharisees feel, the keepers of all these commandments, prohibitions and prescriptions—the ways that they literally controlled the people.
We may think this ridiculous, but we can look into our past and recall the pre-Vatican II stress on, “mortal and venial sins, ember days, fasting and abstinence laws,” put upon us during Advent, Lent, etc. I think Jesus was telling the people of his time and us now, that you can follow all the laws—the minute regulations, or you can simply, love God and your neighbor as yourself, which the mature and serious follower of Jesus would realize, is, a much harder task.
Father Richard Rohr, in his book, The Universal Christ, has gone a long way, along with contemporaries, Ilia Delio, Diamuid O’ Mucho and others, to say that “Christ” (the resurrected Jesus) is part of all of creation and because of that we must treat all created life with respect.
In a smaller, probably less-known book by author, Mary Ellen Ashcroft, entitled, Dogspell: A Dogmatic Theology on the Abounding Love of God, I think we get an image of God that is closer to the heart of Jesus’ message in such stories as the “Prodigal,” returning after squandering all the good gifts the parent had provided, to find, not, retribution, but only, over-the-top love and care for this errant one. We can recall the father in the story not waiting for the son’s return, but upon seeing him, “running” to meet him and welcome him home.
I failed to tell you that the author has a picture of her dog, Cluny, a big, black lab—with long ears and tongue hanging out on the cover of the book. Throughout her writing; she interchanges, “love of God” and “love of Dog”—notice the same letters—and shows us, or at least asks us to imagine a God who is happy just to “lay down beside us.”
I would like to conclude today with a refreshing look at how our God truly loves us, from Mary Ellen Ashcroft. Those of you who have dogs will recognize these “doggy” traits. Flip the word “Dog” – “God” and imagine…
“No one would call Cluny standoffish. The adjectives; ‘cool,’ ‘reserved,’ or ‘snobby,’ do not spring to mind. No wonder dogs are brought in to reach out to Alzheimer’s patients or the dreadfully traumatized—it’s hard to resist the nuzzle and lick of love. Cluny has never thought, ‘Okay, enough of people for today…just leave me alone.’ As Cluny is her dogself, free to be entirely, doggish, she’s an inspiration to me. I crawl up to her on the kitchen floor and put my head on her side and feel her breathing.
Cluny assumes the best in people. She knows if someone heads for the door, it is likely that they want to take her for a nice, long, W-A-L-K. If she hears a bread bag crumple, it probably means they have it in mind to give her a little something to snack on. She knows she’s loveable, and so of course folks will want to go out with her or give her little treats.
But if no one heads for the door or picks up the leash, Cluny finds ways to remind her family that it’s about time for fellowship in the open air. She subtly brings the leash and puts it on your feet. Or she might stare and stare and stare and stare and stare until you say, ‘Okay, darn it. We’ll go, but just for a short one…’
And then you get outside…and the moon is picking up little sparkles on the snow or the lake is a dusky purple or the wind is tossing the branches of an old tree and you notice for the first time that the swirls of its trunk look like a Van Gogh sky. As you walk on, you realize that you wouldn’t be out here without dog. No dog, and you might have forgotten what was most important—fresh air, stars, time with dog.
But even as you enjoy the winter evening, you know that dog is present in it more than you can ever be. You don’t know who came by earlier today, but dog does; she picks up a scent and follows it. She stops and sniffs for a minute, and you know that if she wanted to, she could tell you a whole story about who’s passed there and why. We both come in from a walk with fresh air glancing off us like blessings, but she has a story to tell. Walking with dog is an Emmaus experience: Each time our eyes are opened and we see something afresh.
You come in an put the leash and the coat away. Now what? Dog just wants to sit with you. Often, Cluny finds that she’s accidentally slipped right up onto the couch, which means she can put her head in my lap. When you stir, she licks you. You could stay like that forever, as far as Cluny is concerned—you and dog who loves you, sitting and snoring and dog-dreaming dreams of homecoming and rescue” (pgs. 65-66).