Friday, August 19, 2011


A Surprise

A couple of weeks ago I was at a wedding (you may have read my homily from the mass in an earlier post). At the reception I found myself chatting with a young woman. (I hope she won’t mind my relating a little of our conversation.) I asked her what she did for a living. “I work at a shelter for homeless women” she answered. Thinking immediately of my friends, the Missionaries of Charity, who run such a shelter here in Newark, I enthused, “What a beautiful ministry! How do you like it?” Her face gave away her answer before her words did. She replied something like, “Well, actually I find it pretty depressing and well, I don’t know…”

As I was wondering what that was all about she added as a clarification to this priest from New Jersey, “Well, you see, I’m an atheist.” I wonder I my face gave me away at that point? What I said to myself was, “Well, no wonder you find it depressing to work with difficult, miserable, victimized, suffering people!” But I didn’t say that. It turned out that she had done graduate work in ethics and moral philosophy, but those studies didn’t seem to be sustaining her in her work with the homeless women. So we moved away quickly from the topic of work and into a delightful conversation about the development of conscience and moral growth in adolescents.

Okay, put that little encounter on hold for a minute while I tell you what made me think of her today.

The Two Great Commandments

It happened when I was studying the following Gospel passage, the one assigned for the daily mass for today (Friday). Here is most of it:

and one of [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Mt 22:35-40)

As many of you may know, scholars tell us that Jesus’ summary of the Law is not original with him. It’s a combination of a couple of Old Testament passages. In fact, there’s a Jewish document called The Testimonies of the Twelve Patriarchs dating from just before Christ, in which this combining of the two great commandments is found stated in much the same words as Jesus used.

So what was so special about Jesus’ response? It seems that in the similar passages in Jewish sources the two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, stand side by side, serving together as a convenient summary of the entire Law. But we know from reading the gospels that Jesus understands the two commandments not as simply parallel to one another but as interlocking in a new and radical way: You cannot have one love if you don’t have the other love as well.

For example, if you don’t love your neighbor, Jesus taught, you can’t say you love God. “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.” Jesus continually identifies with the poor, the outcast, the oppressed. You love the divine Lord by loving his poor. There’s no such thing in Christianity as "I love God deeply, I just don't love people."

On the other hand our Savior teaches that if you don't love God your love of neighbor will be just a barren emotion with no solid basis, no real roots. "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:4-5). This is where my friend at the wedding reception comes in. Without trying to speak for her, it seems to me that her motivation for working with homeless people, whatever it was, was wearing pretty thin. Giving oneself to others on the basis of philosophical conviction or humanitarian principles clearly works for some, even many generous people, and I applaud them for their generosity. I just want to point out that from Jesus' point of view such earthbound motivations are of their nature limited and can very easily evaporate when adversity comes.

Mother Teresa's Secret

I frequently have the privilege of watching the Missionaries of Charity interact with poor people. And as a priest who says mass for them at least once a week I also know their secret: their boundless energy and simplicity come from a vibrant spirituality based on private prayer, common prayer, and daily mass. Everyone in the neighborhood knows, for example, that the sisters' soup kitchen is closed on Thursdays because that’s their weekly retreat day. Their foundress, Mother Teresa, knew that her sisters could never keep performing their demanding ministry day after day if they were not in close contact with Jesus, the compassionate Healer, the suffering Servant of the Lord, the despised and rejected One who rose victorious from the tomb.

For her Missionaries of Charity, love of God and love of neighbor are indeed intertwined in a single beautiful unity. The sisters live out the intimate connection between the two inseparable laws of love just as Christ laid it out for us in the gospel.

St. Benedict's Approach

Saint Benedict, writing in the 500’s, showed the same insight into the connection between love of God and love of neighbor. In Chapter 53 of his Rule for Monks, “The Reception of Guests,” he wrote:

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35). …. All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. …. Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received…

Thus our famous Benedictine tradition of hospitality is founded on those two intertwined laws in today's gospel: love of God and love of neighbor. I can only hope that the two will always work that way in the various aspects of my own life -- as a community member, a teacher, priest and so forth.

I pray for the Missionaries of Charity and for my young atheist friend that they all may continue in their own way to minister generously to God’s poor people.

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