Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Lens (homily)

October 26, 2008
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 22:0-26; and Matthew 22:34-40

The reading from Exodus today is from something called “the Covenant Code,” a long list of rules that Moses brings down from the mountain. It’s not just the Ten Commandments that are etched on those tablets. The Ten Commandments are part of a larger code of conduct, hundreds and hundreds of laws and restrictions.

Those must have been really big tablets.

The excerpt for today still rings true to us, I think, because the emphasis is on charity and compassion--though I think some of us have forgotten the part about not oppressing the aliens in our land.

But the Covenant Code also includes a lot of other things, things that we don’t hear at mass and don’t want displayed in our courthouses or schools, in Alabama or anywhere else. Here’s one, for example, just a few verses before today’s excerpt: “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.” In the Civil War the Confederacy used this verse and others like it to say that slavery was OK. But we don’t believe that, not anymore, and we don’t think the Bible does, not down deep.

The Spirit of God shines through the distortions of human history and culture, and our job as readers is not to mix these things up, not to mistake the divine for the human.

The early Church solved this problem really well. There are parts of the Bible, it said, that are problematic--obscure or contradictory or violent. There are other parts, though, that are crystal clear, that are unmistakable, and the thing to do is to use these clear parts to figure out the rest.

And the clearest passage of all is our gospel reading for today.

Jesus doesn’t answer the scholar by saying everything is equally important. He doesn’t say: it’s all or nothing, take it or leave it. He interprets. He prioritizes, first quoting the Shema, from Deuteronomy, about loving God, and then quoting from Leviticus about loving our neighbor and our selves. This is all that really matters, he’s saying. He’s saying: don’t get so busy keeping score that you forget to play the game.

And so, the Church says, let’s play the game. Let’s take this passage and make it the basis of the way we read all the rest of the Bible. As Augustine first put it, in a commentary on these verses way back in the fourth century: “any interpretation of scripture that’s contrary to love is false and in error.” This is the key. The screen. The lens. If we read a passage of the Bible in a way that leads us to fear or to hate, we are a wrong. If we read a passage of the Bible in a way that leads us to judge and exclude and condemn, we are wrong.

Any interpretation that’s contrary to love of God or of neighbor is false and in error.

And not just of the Bible, but of our lives.

Let’s all take a minute to think back on this week and on how often we’ve judged other people: on the basis of appearance, or of some minor flaw in their behavior, or of some little tic in their speech. Let’s think back on how often we’ve let ourselves get caught up in little details at work or at home, obsessed with things that don’t really matter.

That’s certainly true of me, I’m afraid. The things I blow up at are always the silly things. The ridiculous things. I always realize that afterwards, when I’m apologizing.

Or let’s think about our greed. Let’s think about the sin of avarice. Because avarice, too, after all, is a matter of losing sight of what’s most important.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about our financial crisis and about the greed of our financial institutions. But what about our own greed? What about our own desire for what doesn’t really satisfy, for that which is not only beyond our means but not really necessary to begin with? How much of our financial problems might have been avoided if we’d all paid more attention to this single commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ, if instead of straining to buy, we sought to love, if instead of striving to succeed, we made an effort to serve--to be, to live in the moment?

Last week I talked with a wife and mother whose husband is in danger of losing his job. I was worried about her and her family, but she was the one who reassured me. “God loves us” she said, and I could tell she really meant it. She wasn’t being falsely pious. She wasn’t being naïve. “If we’re together, that’s all that matters,” she said. “If we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, we’ll get by.”

I think this man is lucky to have this woman as his wife, and I was lucky to run into her in the parking lot.

Because the greatest commandment isn’t just a reason to examine our conscience, and it’s not just an interpretative key. It’s the basis of our hope, of the joy that sustains us, no matter what else happens. It’s not just a commandment to love but a promise that love is always there, always flowing into us, from God.

And if that’s true, if that’s really true, what can finally frighten us? What can ever really rob us of our peace?

There’s a lot to scare us in the news these days. We’re in for hard times, everybody says, in Corvallis and everywhere else, and there’s no use denying it. As Christians we are called to face reality and we are called to sacrifice.

And in fact, maybe that’s how God is working through this crisis. Maybe the crisis is a call to a poverty that we should have embraced a long time ago. Maybe the crisis is a call to return to the Gospel, to store up our treasure where it really belongs, not in what molds and decays and fades away.

But there’s a deeper call here, too, and that’s the call to joy, to a deep and sustaining joy, to a faith in what’s central, and a faith in what’s true, and a faith in what’s underneath everything that happens to us: a faith in the Alpha and the Omega, in the Word, in the Spirit. In the Way, the Truth, and Life.

This is the other side of the Great Commandment: the Great Reassurance.

Seek first the kingdom, and all else shall come. Because all else won’t finally matter. It won’t matter at all.