YEAR B: HOMILY FOR THE 31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
HOMILY THEME: ONE CROSS, TWO BEAMS
BY: Fr. Mike Lagrimas
A rich businessman was on his way home from work one afternoon. He was surprised to see two men eating grass on the field by the roadside. He stopped his luxury SUV and got out to investigate. “Hey, man! What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “Why are you eating grass?” “We have no job and we have nothing to eat,” the poor man answered. �”Oh, really? Come with me to my house.” �”But sir, I have a wife and two children!” �”That’s fine! Bring them along!” Turning to the other man, he said, “And you, why don’t you come along as well?” The second man shyly replied, “But sir, it might be too much for you. I have a wife with six children!” �”Oh, that’s even better! Bring them as well!” �They all climbed into the big vehicle. As they were cruising along, one of the poor guys says, “Sir, we are overwhelmed by your kindness. We cannot express how grateful we are for taking all of us with you.” �The rich man replies, “No problem. You know, my gardener left two months ago. The grass at my mansion is already four feet tall.”
The rich businessman, far from helping these poor families, intended to use them to his advantage. This happens too often, especially when election season comes. We see lots of politicians, with wide grins and open arms, distribute goods to the poor, not really to help them, but to get their votes.
The Gospel this Sunday gives us a lesson on the greatest commandment of love. A scribe approached Jesus with a question: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus answered this academic question by quoting right away Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is what the Jews call the “Shema”, a prayer that every faithful Jew would recite twice every day, summarizing the essentials of Jewish faith and way of life. Then he immediately joins a commandment from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This teaching is the most central core of the Gospel because it is about love. The Apostle St. John gives the answer why this is so: “because God is love.” (1Jn 4:8) Hence, he rightly concludes that the only way to know God is to love: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” St. Albert the Great said, “It is by the path of love, which is charity, that God draws near to man, and man to God. But where charity is not found, God cannot dwell. If, then, we possess charity, we possess God, for ‘God is Charity’”.
In his teaching, Jesus made it very clear that the first and most important commandment is love of God. Love of neighbor comes second only. This is a very important point to consider. Nowadays, there is a flagrant attempt by secular societies to relegate God to the side. Pope Benedict XVI made this observation: “The crisis we are living through,” he said, “carries with it signs of the exclusion of God from people’s lives, a general indifference to the Christian faith, and even the intention of marginalizing it from public life.”(May 30, 2011).
The life of every Christian can be illustrated by the image of the cross. The cross has vertical and horizontal beams. But for it to stand, the vertical beam has first to be put in place. Only then can the horizontal beam be attached to it. The vertical beam can stand on itself without the horizontal beam, but the cross is not complete. On the other hand, the horizontal beam will be lying useless on the ground without the vertical beam.
The same is true with every Christian. The two dimensions must be present in order to have a complete and meaningful Christian life. The vertical dimension is the love of God, and the horizontal dimension is the love of neighbor. But which comes first? As Jesus clearly pointed out, the vertical dimension must come first. The love of God is most important – “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”
But, though important, this alone is not enough. In order to complete the image of a cross, the horizontal dimension has to come in as a matter of course. In fact, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). And the Apostle St. John gives a strong exhortation on this: “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, but hates his brother, he is a liar; whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1Jn 4:20). St. James also talked about a faith that is lifeless if it is not accompanied by good works (James 2:14).
Nevertheless, it should also be noted that love of neighbor should be rooted in love of God. In other words, it is not possible to love our fellowmen if we do not have love of God. This is unfortunately the mistake of many modern secular societies. People undertake various noble humanitarian endeavors – peace negotiations, charitable works and programs for the sick and the poor, relief and rehabilitation programs for the victims of calamities. They form various organizations and social groups purportedly to help the poor and underprivileged – but without God in their agenda! What a waste! No matter how noble these undertakings are, these eventually will end up in failure or fruitlessness.
As the Psalmist tells us, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, in vain does the guard keep watch” (Ps 127:1). Jesus said that: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Hence, the lesson this Sunday is a warning against self-sufficiency. In the end, despite all the economic progress and scientific and technological advancements human societies have achieved, these are just human endeavors – limited, imperfect and ephemeral. The devastations brought about by the numerous natural calamities and the global financial meltdown we are experiencing now can attest to this truth. We should never rely solely on human power and products. God alone is our sure refuge and permanent stronghold – no matter what happens.
When Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe, and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:67). Let Peter’s response be ours, too. And may our love of God become the source and inspiration of our love of neighbor.
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
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