Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (2014)
By Fr. Leroy Clementich, CSC
Somewhere out of my distant past, I remember this line: “Laws are made to keep human beings human.” The interesting insight about that aphorism is that laws are indeed made by humans to keep themselves and others more human. Given, therefore, that laws are made by and for humans, the deeper question remains, why should we need laws at all? Could we not simply get along together on the basis of the Jewish and Christian scriptures? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It all seems so simple and reasonable and yet our history tells us that it has never worked. Historically, we have done unmentionable things to one another. Christians might say that it is all the result of Original Sin, the collapse of the human conscience. Others would claim that by our nature we think and act primarily for our own good, not for the good of others. “It is so natural,” we say.
Nonetheless, despite all we have said thus far, human individuals do have conscience and they normally exhibit a sense of guilt, even sadness when they offend another. In order to assist human conscience, therefore, we have made laws to assist one another in our own failure to keep the law. Perhaps, if there were no laws, this planet would be the scene of utter chaos.
Another interesting element in the making and keeping of laws is that our sense of what is appropriate for daily life gradually changes. Happily, we often become more sensitive regarding what should be considered first or last, important or not so important.
For many years capital punishment by death has simply been taken for granted in many countries. Today, such punishment is being discontinued as a less than human practice. Many Catholics, for instance will remember the old rules of fasting and abstinence or the law of confession at Easter, or the rule of Mass on ”holy days of obligation.” Today, however many Catholics find spiritual reward in acts of kindness, involvement in peace activities or social justice issues. There is evidence among many, therefore, that some human activities are of higher value than others.
This is the question that arises in the scriptures for this 20th Sunday in Ordinary time: What, indeed, is the commandment of first importance. In the Mosaic Law there were some 615 such laws concerning worship, human relationships, dietary rules, personal hygiene, etc. Some of these were obviously kept more stringently than others. Nonetheless, if you asked any devout Jew to name the most important of the laws, he or she would tell you that love of God and love of neighbor stands in first place: neighbor meaning especially the widow and the orphan, the resident alien and any others who could not sustain their lives on their own. In other words, the wealthy and the powerful could take care of themselves. The poor and the powerless needed to depend on the law for help.
In the gospel today we have the well-known conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee regarding which of the Mosaic laws were most important. The Pharisee already had the answer, of course, but he wanted to see if Jesus truly believed in the Torah and all its minuscule legal prescriptions. Jesus brought the controversy to a close by quoting the Torah: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Then, however, Jesus added an important quote from the Book of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The point of all this being that the 613 statutes in the law were important but not as important as observing the more critical law of caring for one’s neighbor. Again, the point being that we need to be able to separate the chaff from the wheat.
It would be an interesting exercise in catechism if we Catholics were asked to draw up our Top Ten list of Catholic laws, those we have kept so scrupulously over the years: Where would fasting abstinence fit? Where would acts of justice and kindness, care for children and the elderly fit? Would the first commandment still fit at the top of the list?
Finally, the crux of the question regarding the Law and laws is the one that asks whether we are willing to move from the abstract into the concrete, to ask who exactly is my neighbor and what does he mean to me.
Father Roger Vermalen Karban, a biblical author makes the following incisive observation in a recent issue of the Catholic publication, Celebration: “It seems clear we (Catholics) have had problems with our Catholic Top Ten list. In a tragic example, there would have been no clerical sexual abuse scandal in our church if we had put the care of the most vulnerable ahead of protecting the institution. (The church) For centuries we ignored the priorities of our sacred biblical authors. This scandal is proof to me that no matter how eloquently we preach God’s word, there’s always a possible disconnect between that ministry and our actual living God’s Word.”
Well said: Knowing the law is important, but doing it is what ultimately counts.
The scriptures: Exodus 22: 20-26 • 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10 • Matthew 22:34-40
USCCB Bible Daily Readings: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time