Sunday, November 4, 2012

"The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law" - Paul in his Letter to the Romans (A Reflection on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 22:34-40)

"The entire Law is summed up in a single command: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:15) 

Dr. Tom Dooley was a well-known doctor who spent his life helping thousands of refugees in Vietnam many years ago, before he himself died of cancer. He used to tell a story of how one time he was brought to a small dark and dingy hut where in a corner was a little boy huddled and crying out in pain. He couldn’t figure out what it was that smelled so bad until he finally touched the child and discovered he had been covered with cow dung, probably the only known home-remedy that these poor people could afford.

He asked the parents to help him remove the dung that had covered the child, and only then did he discover the sores on the boy’s flesh, already infected and in some places, infested with maggots. Gross, isn’t it! I found the story quite terrible myself. The good doctor, said he felt nauseous at first, but eventually got to cleansing the boy’s wounds, applying proper medication, and bundled him with a ton of bandages.

On his way out of the hut, still feeling quite shaken by what he had seen, Dooley found himself crying and telling himself: "I do not know if that boy will survive or eventually die (in those conditions, he was more likely to die), but this I know: crying out from that little bundle of flesh was my Lord in agony, and I know that what is done for the least of my brothers is done to him". 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus—in response to the question, Which is the first of all the commandments?—places side by side the command of Love of God and that of neighbor. The two commandments are inseparable; they form two aspects of but one commandment of love. Our love for God can only be made manifest in our love for our brothers and sisters in need.

I once knew this lady who’s very religious and pious; she was very active in church, was very generous to the parish, and very kind to priests. When her kids were all grown-up, she decided to join a religious order as a lay member. I admired her a lot and enjoyed having conversations with her about faith and religion, since she wasn’t only very bright, but was also well read.

Once however, I ran into her in a religious goods store; she didn’t see me come in of course, but from a distance, I noticed she was harassing the cashier about some little item the girl mistakenly priced. (Granted the cashier should’ve been more careful. But that’s beside the point). Never did I think this nice woman who always had “God” on her lips, could actually act so mean, and for something so minor. She finally noticed me walking towards her, and her demeanor changed. “Oh, Father, I didn’t see you there”. And then, embarrassed perhaps that I had seen and heard her nastiness, she said: “You know Father, you really have to act this way to these people. They’re so lazy and incompetent. That’s why these people are poor and will stay that way. I just don’t have time for these people”.

Who among us has not met such persons? Who among us has not been that kind of person, at one point or another? Perhaps because of that encounter, and the embarrassment she felt, she never asked to talk theology and religion with me again. I, on my part, was somewhat glad, because honestly, I felt quite mad as I stood there listening to the uncharitable words that came from this woman who, just days ago, was talking to me about the parish’s outreach program to the city’s poor she was involved in.

At such moments, I couldn’t help but find myself understanding, if not actually sympathizing with my atheistic and agnostic friends who would complain that Christianity would be ok if it weren't for some Christians who give it a bad name; and I couldn’t help but recall Jesus’ rather harsh words: 

“Away from me you accursed ones, away to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you did not give me food; I was thirsty, and you did not give me drink; I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me; naked and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.” 

How much do we really love God? Do we love him enough to love him truly and sincerely? Or is our love mere lip service? Our love for God can only be proven by our love for people, people who are flesh and blood, good and bad, pleasant and undesirable, our friends and our enemies. 

“What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” (James 2:14-16) 

A tree is known by its fruit, and the tree of our faith and love of God must bear the fruit of neighborly-love; there simply isn’t any other way.

And why is that? Precisely because it is Christ that we love when we serve those in need. And it is also Christ whom we refuse and reject when we fail to assist those who need us. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me”.

Albert Aerts, a Belgian lawyer during the war, spoke of it in an experience he had during the war. He picked up a wounded man and carried him for more than a mile till he found a house where he could be treated. As he carried him along those devastated streets, he wondered what the point was of carrying this man who would surely die anyway. As he looked at his bony hands, black and blue, and full of bruises, it suddenly dawned on him, it was Christ he was carrying. Suddenly everything had a point, and it was no longer futile to carry this man who would die anyway.

“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, [namely] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These are Saint Paul's words in his Letter to the Romans. (13:8-9)

The scribe who came to Jesus wanted to know which (of the hundreds of laws they followed) was the most important one. Jesus didn't pick a few, instead he pointed his questioner to just two: love of God and love of neighbor - two inseparable commands, summed up by Paul in just one word: "love", which he calls "the fulfillment of the law." (Rom. 13:10)

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)