30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul,
and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Next to the commandment to love of God above all things, there stands the commandment to love one’s neighbor as we love our very self. The God who is Love takes this second commandment very seriously, as we can see from the first reading today. The commandment to love God above all entails the obligation to love our neighbor as our self, and this love, in the concrete sense, requires not only that we do no evil to our neighbor, but also, beyond that minimal requirement, that we do good when our neighbor is in need.
In the first reading from Exodus, we see just how seriously God takes the obligation to love our neighbor when God warns His chosen people that a most severe punishment will be visited upon those who do wrong to widows and orphans, and even to aliens. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword. Clearly, the language is meant to be shocking to us to indicate God’s absolute concern for the good of man, and especially for the vulnerable, that stands behind the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Indeed, the text chooses the most vulnerable of neighbors as prime examples, the widow and the orphan who are so desperately dependent on the good will of others, and the alien who is so often without rights and subject to exploitation because he is not part of the clan, the tribe, or the country.
We can see the same kind of grave condemnations in the great prophets and in the minor prophets like Amos who rails against the social injustices in the land of Israel in his day. Amos warns of God’s anger at his people for tolerating such evils in their midst. God warns again and again that the measure of repentance for one’s own sins is the concrete willingness to undo the wrongs that one has done to one’s neighbor.
Moreover, we see in the Gospels that the concrete ways in which we treat our neighbor, especially the most vulnerable among us, is going to be part of our final judgment, and we learn that it will be a fearful judgment for those who sin against the obligation to love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus, in the account of the final judgment in St. Matthews gospel, warns us that we will be judged not only in terms of our relationship and obligations to God, but also in accordance with the way we treated our neighbor, the way we treated the hungry, the naked, those oppressed and in prison, all of whom are our neighbors regardless of the fact that they may not be our family or immediate neighbors or companions. In short, in the eyes of God, it is not sufficient that we ourselves do not commit evils against our neighbor, but we are also required to do good for our neighbor, and especially for those who are most in need and within the scope of our help. And when we cannot personally bring about their relief, at the very least we must not tolerate their abuse and must do all that we can to remove such evils from our society.
Certainly charity begins at home, and without love and compassion toward those closest to us, our family, our immediate neighbors, we will hardly be likely to care about those who are our neighbors at some distance and who are suffering injustice and neglect.
For instance, an immediate example I think of from past history of our country would be the plight of the slaves in our country. Surely it was not sufficient to fulfill the law of love that a Christian refused to have slaves. Would not the law of love have required Christians without slaves to at least try to extend help to those slaves who were suffering from sickness, from the lack of the necessities of life, and from other forms of extreme hardship? That was what St. Peter Claver dedicated his life to in his day.
But beyond that, even if most Christians could do little to alleviate the sufferings of those slaves, because of the constraints of a slave society, would not these Christians be bound by the law of love and by a sense of justice to have done everything they could to overturn that institution by unflagging moral opposition and by whatever legal means were available within the parameters of justice and peace?
And the same thing is true today. Surely the law of love of God and neighbor requires that we strive to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the victims of societal injustices? We cannot remove all injustices, or totally remove all suffering by our personal acts of charity, that’s true. But surely we have an obligation to do what we reasonably can by our personal charity to alleviate the misery at least of our immediate neighbors, and as many of our more remote neighbors in our country and in the world at large, as is reasonably possible in our personal circumstances.
But beyond our direct charity, the law of love also requires that we also do what we can to change the laws and the social prejudices that make this injustice possible in the first place. This requires, first of all, a moral opposition to try to change the hearts of legislators and those who support them, since they are behind the legalization of such injustices. Again it’s not enough that we simply bear witness to our immediate neighbors, our co-workers who support some form of injustice to the weak and vulnerable. We have a right and a duty to do what we can, as peaceful citizens, to change the law that supports such grave injustices. Slavery was eradicated not simply by moral opposition, but, most unfortunately by a terrible war costing hundreds of thousands of lives. We cannot and must not take that path again, but we must use our power as citizens to fight another kind of war, a peaceful and unflagging struggle to guarantee the most basic human rights to all. That struggle is not optional for those who truly love their neighbor, who truly desire the most basic human goods for all their neighbors.
But as in the Gospels, another critical question is “and who is my neighbor?” You remember the parable of the Good Samaritan where that question is raised when Jesus insists that love of God must include love of neighbor. For Jesus, the neighbor ultimately is every man, but our duty towards our neighbors begins especially with those whom we have some immediate capacity to help. We personally cannot help everyone, at least materially.
For instance, we cannot take care of all the needs of the world’s poor by ourselves. But we all can provide some assistance, even if we cannot by ourselves relieve all suffering and cannot by our self solve the serious problems that underlie these injustices. Certainly we have no capacity to change the laws or the legislators in other countries where injustice toward the poor is often endemic to that society and its political, social and legal institutions. But we can pray for their conversion and also do what we can to alleviate the immense suffering by victims of an unjust legal system. But beyond these two things we can do nothing, and must trust in God’s mercy and providence.
But in our own society, we can and must do a lot more. We should not be shirking our personal involvement and expect others like the government alone to solve these problems. After all, the government is often part of the problem, especially when its laws are making these social evils possible. We have the right and duty to struggle to change those institutions that support grave evils, and the struggle can never be abandoned because that means concretely abandoning the victims of injustice.
But to change governmental policies, we must also try to change the attitudes of society itself that support such grave evils, by our open moral opposition and willingness to dialogue with anyone who is seeking the truth. We must help people to recognize, for instance, that the unborn child is truly our neighbor, a person with all the rights of persons. But beyond that work to change peoples’ ideas and attitudes, we can and must use whatever political influence and rights we have to overturn laws that support such grave injustice.
Love your neighbor as yourself, then, does not mean simply wishing our victimized neighbors well. It means, above all, supporting them in their own immediate needs. It also means defending the basic human rights, and above all the right to life, especially for the weak and powerless, by using all the peaceful and just means at our disposal to change the attitudes of our neighbors who support these immoral laws, and over time by changing the laws themselves.
True Christians love their native lands as much as anyone and even more when their country is going astray. They not only provide care for the victims of injustice, whether it be personal or institutional injustice, but they have the charity and courage, as true patriots, to speak the necessary and critical truths at whatever cost to themselves to save their society from self-destruction. And they will work without surrender for the changes in society – in the social, political and legal institutions – fundamental changes upon which the very future of their country depends. Christians do this because they are charged by the law of love of God to love their neighbor as an essential part of their living out their true love of God. Upon this love in action depends the restoration of that support for human life and dignity in all their grandeur, as a gift from God. Christians may be despised and hated for their efforts in this noble cause, but in the end they are the true patriots because they are true believers and lovers of God and neighbor.