The First and Most Important Things We Need to Do, 20th Friday (I), August 21, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Friday of the 20th Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Pius X
August 21, 2015
Ruth 1:1.3-6.14-16.22, Ps 146, Mt 22:34-40


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • In responding to the question of the lawyer in today’s Gospel — “what is the greatest of all the commandments?” — Jesus tells us the single most important thing we need to do in our lives. If we do everything else but don’t do this, we will not have lived life well, and we would not have passed the test of life. If we do this but don’t get to everything else, we will still have in some way responded to the gift of life. We’ve heard Jesus’ response so many times that we can think that the question was a soft-ball, but it was really a 100 mph slider. There were 613 commands in the Old Testament. To choose which of them was the greatest was something that the scholars of the law had found difficult for centuries. Jesus’ answer came from what God had inspired Moses to teach the Jewish people after he had rescued them from Pharaoh. From that point forward, faithful Jews have recited it every day: “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 might.” Then God through Moses gave them instructions to keep hammering this reality home every day: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:4-9). Even though they recited this when they awoke and went to bed, even though they did make a phylactery to hand it down from their hair so that it would be an emblem on their forehead, even though the put it on a scroll and installed it next to their front door, the Jews still hadn’t realized its supremacy, in other words, why God had them do all of these things. It was precisely because loving God with all we are and have is simply the most important thing we need to do in life. It’s not enough to live God only with some of our mind, heart, soul and strength. He gives us himself, he gives us his grace, precisely so that we can love him with as close to 100 percent of all we are and have and gives us his own love and grace to make it possible for us to love like that, to sacrifice for God with agape like he sacrificed for us. Jesus reminded his listeners of this in his response to the question.
  • But then Jesus added something else, unsolicited. He knew that if he stopped merely with the love of God, many people would think that they were doing just fine. He wanted to give a clear means by which they could evaluate whether we are doing so. He said that there is a second commandment, taken from the Book of Leviticus, that is similar to the greatest: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18 ). One clear index of how we love God is how we love our neighbor made in his image. Jesus during the Last Supper would set himself up as a model for the love of neighbor. No longer would our love for ourselves be the standard for the love of our neighbor, but his love for us would be the standard: “love one another as I have loved you!” (Jn 13:34; Jn 15:12). When he asked Simon Peter three times after the resurrection whether he loved him and three times Simon said he did, Jesus told him “feed my sheep,” “feed my lambs,” and “tend my sheep.” Peter’s love for the Lord would be shown in the way that he loved all those whom God loves, all those whom God has entrusted to care. In St. Luke’s version of either this or a very similar episode with a scribe, the scribe asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?,” the neighbor we’re supposed to love as ourselves, with the love of God for the image of God in ourselves and others. And Jesus gave the Parable of the Good Samaritan, stressing that everyone is in our neighborhood, that we’re called to cross the street, or the hall way, to care for others in their need, sacrificing our mind, heart and strength, sacrificing our money, time and convenience to care. And the neighbors we’re called to love first and foremost are those in this chapel, in this convent, in the place where the Lord wants us to grow.
  • But the thing that so many miss about Jesus’ response is what Jesus says after giving us this two-fold directive of love. I have found this one sentence to be one of the most helpful and practical sentences in the whole Gospel: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, all 613 commands that God revealed in the Old Testament can be summed up in the love of God and love of neighbor. Every commandment God has given us is meant to help us to love God and others. This is so different from the way many of us often look at the commandments. We can view them as restrictive, rather than liberating. Many of us can claim that we violate the commandments precisely because we love, as if the commandments stifle love. But by this sentence, Jesus, who cannot and will not deceive us, is giving us the key to understand the path he has given us to grow in love, which is by keeping the commandments, each of which teaches us how to love. That’s why Jesus during the Last Supper tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15) and later “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (Jn 15:17).
  • We can see the obvious connection between love and the commandments when we focus on the ten most famous of them. How could we ever claim to love God if we’re worshiping idols or misusing his name? How could we claim to love him if we don’t come to worship him on the day he calls his own? How could we ever love our parents if we dishonor them? How could we claim to love others if we hate or kill them? How could we love our spouse if we cheat on him or her? How could we truly love another if we use them for our sexual pleasure and risk their eternal salvation? How could we love someone if we’re stealing from them? How could we love someone if we’re lying about them or lying to them? How could we really love someone if we’re envious rather than happy about the good things they have in their lives? The law of God is a law of love. Every violation of his commandments is a violation of love. Therefore, whenever God tells us “Thou shalt not…,” the prohibition is to help us to preserve love. It is like a signpost keeping us on the pathway of true love and away from the dead ends that, however enticing, just end up getting us lost and possibly killed. God out of love for us gave us each commandment.
  • This is likewise important for us to grasp when we look at the rule of the Sisters of Life, when we look at the teaching of the Church, when we look at what the Lord gives us to experience each day. The more we see them as opportunities, as training, for the love of God and the love of neighbor, the more everything comes alive.
  • I’d like to focus on two applications of this first and greatest commandment. The first is in today’s passage from the Book of Ruth. It’s too bad that in the Church’s two-year daily Mass lectionary we only have two days with this beautiful book, and one of them, tomorrow, may be substituted for the feast of the Coronation of Our Lady, but it well illustrates how the love of neighbor is incorporated into the love of God. Naomi and Elimelech leave Bethlehem in a famine to go to the pagan territory of the plateau of Moab. There Elimelech dies as well as Naomi’s two sons, one of whom was married to Ruth. That left Naomi totally abandoned in life with no man to care for her as the culture of the time, no father, husband or son. She was going to return home in the hope that one of her male relatives would take care of her, but Ruth wasn’t going to let her mother-in-law live in risk. Even though it would have been easy for Ruth to nurse her own wounds as a motherless widow, she cared for Naomi more than she cared for herself. Even after Orpah, who was married to Naomi’s other son left Naomi, Ruth refused. Beautifully she said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” She was essentially saying that she loved her mother-in-law and was going to sacrifice for her. She was a pagan but in this she was loving the Lord in disguise and coming to get to know the true God worshipped by Naomi. And when they returned, it was the time of the barley harvest and Ruth went to work in the fields of Naomi’s relative Boaz, who was impressed by Ruth’s selfless dedication to Naomi and decided to take her as his wife. She conceived and had a son who was considered under the levirate marriage laws a grandson of Naomi through Ruth’s first husband who had died without a son. The people said to Naomi, “Blessed is the LORD who has not failed to provide you today with an heir! May he become famous in Israel! He will be your comfort and the support of your old age, for his mother is the daughter-in-law who loves you. She is worth more to you than seven sons!” And we know who that heir would be. First, it would be king David, who would be Ruth’s great grandson through her son Obed and his son Jesse. But then 31 generations away would come the greatest Heir of all, Jesus, the redeemer of the world. All Ruth did was love and she received so many blessings precisely through doing so.
  • The second illustration is the Pope we celebrate today, St. Pius X. His whole life as a disciple and then his priorities as a priest, bishop and Pope were all to love God and neighbor with all he had and to help form them to keep the first and the greatest commandment and the similar second one. Born in 1835 in a small village called Riese near Venice, one of a family of 12 whose father was a mailman, Giuseppe Sarto discerned a priestly vocation as a boy but his family did not have the resources to pay for his priestly education. His pastor came to the rescue. He tutored him in Latin and arranged a scholarship for him to go away to seminary where, despite a ten mile journey on foot each day, Giuseppe excelled so much that he was ordained a priest by dispensation at the early age of 23, 150 years ago this year. Straight out of the script of Going My Way, he was assigned as the assistant to an aging and crippled pastor in Tombolo for nine years. In between pastoral calls, he continued to study St. Thomas Aquinas and canon law, established a night school for adult catechesis, and became a much sought-after preacher. In 1867, he was named pastor in Salzano, where he rebuilt the Church, provided for a parish hospital, and heroically served the ill during a cholera epidemic. Recognizing his talents and zeal, his bishop then made him a canon of the Cathedral, spiritual director and rector of the diocesan seminary, and finally vicar general. At the age of 49, he was named Bishop of Mantua, a diocese that was in rough shape due to various scandals among the clergy. He immediately set out to reform his priests, present and future, and with and through them to reform the people. He taught dogmatic and moral theology at the seminary. He gave weekly catechesis to adults. He heard confessions regularly. His charity knew no bounds. After eight years, there was a such a change in Mantua that Pope Leo XIII named this simple priest of humble origins Cardinal Patriarch of Venice. There, in contrast to the pageantry with which such a prelate was accustomed to be treated, his unpretentiousness and zeal in trying to teach the faith quickly won over the people, who regarded him as a saint. After Leo died in 1903, the cardinals in conclave were set to elect the Vatican Secretary of State Mariano Rampolla as the new pope, but his election, by an historical situation too complicated to describe now, was vetoed by the Austrian emperor Franz Jozef. Providentially, Cardinal Sarto was elected as a compromise.
  • During his 11 years as pope, he brought to the papacy his vast priestly experience ministering to ordinary Catholics. He chose as his motto, “To renew all things in Christ” (Eph 1:10), and he began that renewal with the “source and summit of the Christian life,” Christ in the Eucharist. Most Catholics, influenced by Jansenist rigorism, received Holy Communion only once or twice a year. He encouraged them to receive Holy Communion frequently, even daily. He lowered the age of first communion from about 18 to the age of reason. He promoted communion to be brought to the sick. He encouraged all Catholics to read Sacred Scripture each day, preached publicly every Sunday on the Gospel, and founded the Pontifical Biblical Institute to help in the understanding of the Bible. He reformed Church music so that the people would be able to sing simple Gregorian plainchants during Mass and come to Mass to love God and receive his strength to love others, rather than to attend to hear a concert of famous Bach, Beethoven or Mozart orchestral Masses. He fostered Marian devotion. He clearly denounced the various forms of “modernist” ideas that were undermining people’s faith and made sure that all priests and teachers who had a responsibility to pass on the Catholic faith took an oath to promise they would pass it on rather than modernist notions. He also began a thorough reform of canon law and resolved various complicated Church-state issues so that people would have the proper context to grow in love. In just over a decade, he brought renewal to almost all areas of Church life, the type of restoration in love that was bound to occur if he was restoring all things in Christ and in his love.
  • I have a great devotion to Pope St. Pius X that really grew during my time in Seminary and particularly my first year as a priest. The first Diocese he founded after he became Pope was the Diocese of Fall River, for which I was ordained a priest in 1999. He always had a special affection for the Diocese of Fall River, telling our founding bishop, William Stang, during a 1905 visit to Rome, “You are my very dear child because you are my first born.” While I was studying to be a priest in Rome, he was a great help to keep me spiritually close to home. Whenever I was in St. Peter’s Basilica — which I’m happy to say was virtually every day — I would make a short visit to his tomb to pray for then Bishop O’Malley and the priests and faithful of the diocese as well as for perseverance and fidelity in my vocation. After my priestly ordination, when I was sent back to Rome to continue theological studies, my relationship with him intensified. Out of 106 Masses I celebrated within St. Peter’s Basilica that first year of priesthood, 24 were over his mortal remains. With each Mass, by a sort of holy osmosis, I could sense my bond with him growing and I began to read various biographies, study anew his encyclicals, letters, motu proprios, and other documents and decrees. The more I entered into the details of his life, the more I realized how many lessons they had for me and for all in the Church today. But his whole process of holy restoration of the Church began with the worship and love of God and the service and love of neighbor. That’s what made him great because he lived the first and the greatest commandment. And that’s what he’s interceding for each of us likewise to do.
  • It’s at Mass that we have the chance to grow in the capacity to do both. It’s here that we seek to pray the Mass with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, giving the Lord ourselves together with our praise. And it’s here where the Lord Jesus teaches us to “do this in memory of him,” making his total gift of himself out of love for us the standard of our self-giving for others. Through the intercession of St. Pius X, let us ask the Lord for the grace of a profound renewal in our baptismal graces and a great passion to be his instrument to renew the Church and the world, as salt, light and leaven, so that the Church and each of us may be known above all for the way we love God and love our neighbor to the extreme!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 Ru 1:1, 3-6, 14b-16, 22

Once in the time of the judges there was a famine in the land;
so a man from Bethlehem of Judah
departed with his wife and two sons
to reside on the plateau of Moab.
Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died,
and she was left with her two sons, who married Moabite women,
one named Orpah, the other Ruth.
When they had lived there about ten years,
both Mahlon and Chilion died also,
and the woman was left with neither her two sons nor her husband.
She then made ready to go back from the plateau of Moab
because word reached her there
that the LORD had visited his people and given them food.Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth stayed with her.Naomi said, “See now!
Your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her god.
Go back after your sister-in-law!”
But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you!
For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge,
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Thus it was that Naomi returned
with the Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth,
who accompanied her back from the plateau of Moab.
They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Responsorial Psalm PS 146:5-6ab, 6c-7, 8-9a, 9bc-10

R. (1b) Praise the Lord, my soul!
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD, his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The LORD keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
The LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!

Alleluia Ps 25:4b, 5a

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Teach me your paths, my God,
guide me in your truth.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel Mt 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law, tested him by asking,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“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.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”