Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 25th October 2020
Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40
When I was at school, I spent six years studying German: first to GCSE and then to A-Level. I really enjoy learning languages, but the one thing I could get the hang of was the grammar! All the words for “the” and all the pronouns and so forth – is it dem or der, die or das?
And the Jewish law was a lot like this. When we think about the Jewish law we think of the Ten Commandments but these are just the tip of the iceberg – the full Jewish law contained 613 mitzvot, or commands.
All of these commands were binding on Jews, so when the Pharisees asked Jesus to tell them which of these laws was most important, it was a trick question to trip him up.
But the one who is the Word made Flesh knew the written word of God intimately – and so he tells us that the whole law hung on the commands to love God and to love our neighbour.
The first command is taken from Deuteronomy 6, verses 4 and 5, and they form part of the Jewish daily prayer – so this command was the greatest not only because it had the most overreaching application but because it would have been so well known.
The second command comes from the Book of Leviticus.
Pope Francis called these two commands a grammar: when speaking to a group of Evangelicals in 2016 he said that he would speak the language of the heart – a language with only two rules in its grammar.
These two rules are the basis not only of the Jewish law but of everything that we believe and hold to in Christianity.
They are simple…but they are demanding.
What does it mean for us to really love God? What does it mean to really love our neighbour as ourself?
To continue the theme of grammar: love is not a noun – something we fall into, and something we can fall out of. Love is a verb – it’s something we do. Love shows itself in works.
How do we demonstrate our love for God? By prayer, worship, study of his word – not just when it feels easy but when it feels difficult. Wearing masks makes worship harder, I know – but it is so crucial that we don’t give up on our worship together, coming to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
And what about our love for our neighbour? When we come into the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, we demonstrate our love for him by genuflecting or bowing towards the tabernacle.
How do we demonstrate our love for our neighbour? It’s important to remember that when Jesus tells the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, his praise for the sheep and criticism for the goats is that whenever they did or didn’t show love for their neighbour by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and, visiting the sick and imprisoned: Jesus says, “In as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me; in as much as you didn’t do this to the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.”
There are two images which bring this home, to me certainly: one is an image of Jesus on the tube; and the other is the statue, which you might have seen as it travels around the country – the statue of the homeless Jesus.
In our first reading God tells the Jews not to oppress the foreigner living in their land, because they themselves had been strangers in Egypt. Jesus, too, spent time as a stranger in Egypt – he and the Holy Family fled there as refugees to escape from Herod. We are living in a time when a great many refugees are fleeing their homelands in search of safety.
Many people have called for the Royal Navy to be deployed to stop people trying to cross the English Channel. These are desperate people – nobody would risk their lives by leaving everything they have and crossing continents, pressed into lorries and crammed into tiny boats – nobody would do this if they had any other choice. Is it loving, to greet these people with the barrel of a warship’s cannon?
When asked “who is my neighbour?”, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person who showed care for someone he would be expected to despise. Let us love not only those who look like us, who speak like us, who act like us – but let us love even more those who are most vulnerable, those who are different from us, those who we find it hard to love – because love shows itself not in beliefs of the mind, or even in verbal expressions of love – but in action.