The Greatest and Most Important Thing We Must Do, 17th Sunday after Pentecost (EF), September 11, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
17th Sunday after Pentecost, Extraordinary Form
September 11, 2016
Eph 4:1-6, Mt 22:34-46


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


The following text guided today’s homily: 

The priority

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 made a phylactery to hang 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, Jesus’ Jewish interrogators 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 love God only with some of our mind, heart, soul and strength. God 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 as possible. He gives us his own love to make it possible for us to love like him, to sacrifice for God with agape like he sacrificed for us. Jesus reminded his listeners of this in his response to their question.

The way we love God wholeheartedly

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, because so many of us think we love God by the simple fact that we acknowledge him and have warm feelings of affection and gratitude toward him. Jesus wanted to give a clear means by which we could evaluate whether we are really loving God, because to love him means to love what he loves. Jesus 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 Jesus’ response to a similar question by a scribe, when the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?,” the neighbor we’re supposed to love as ourselves, Jesus gave the Parable of the Good Samaritan, stressing that everyone is in our neighborhood, that we’re called to cross the street to care for others in their need, sacrificing our mind, heart, soul and strength, and our money, time and convenience to care for others like a loving mother cares for a sick child. And St. John, who was present when Jesus spoke the words of today’s Gospel, made the lesson clear for the members of the early Church when he said, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).

The way to understand the commandments and be trained in love

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 when I teach moral theology to young and old alike: “On these two commandments,” Jesus says, “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 directive God has given us is meant to help us to love God and others. This is so different from the way many often look at the commandments. They view them as restrictive, rather than liberating. Many claim, especially with regard to the sixth and ninth commandments concerning human sexuality and the fifth commandment on abortion, that they violate them precisely out of love, as if the commandments stifle love. By this sentence, however, 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 can we ever claim to love God if we’re worshiping idols or misusing his name? How can we claim to love him if we don’t come to worship him on the day he calls his own? How can we ever love our parents if we dishonor them? How can 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 can we truly love another if we use them for our sexual pleasure and risk their eternal salvation? How can we love someone if we’re stealing from them? How can we love someone if we’re lying about them or lying to them? How can 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.

The union of love of God and neighbor in St. Teresa of Calcutta

I’d like to make three applications of Jesus’ teaching today. The first is with regard to the needy. In this past week, the whole Church has had the grace to focus on the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta, who was canonized by Pope Francis last week, whose feast day was on Monday, the 19th anniversary of her birth into eternal life, and the 70th anniversary of whose call within a call by Jesus to have her found the Missionaries of Charity was yesterday. At the United Nations this week, there was a week-long exhibit and a Conference attended by 500 people on her enduring legacy to the international community, and yesterday at St. Patrick’s there was a packed Mass with Cardinal Dolan, two Papal Nuncios and so many Missionaries of Charity focused on her life. Mother Teresa lived this unity between loving God with all her mind, heart, soul and strength and loving her neighbor with all that same mind, heart, soul and strength. She taught that the same Jesus who says to us, “This is my Body,” and “This is the chalice of my Blood,” is the one who says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” As Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the new Papal Nuncio to the United States, said in his moving homily yesterday, for us to become like Mother Teresa isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible. And it begins by imitating Mother Teresa in resolving to refuse Jesus nothing that he asks. And Jesus is asking us to love our neighbor as he has loved us.

Loving our fellow Christians

The second application is to Church unity. Today in the first reading, St. Paul exhorts us, as he urged the first Christians in Ephesus, “Live in a manner worthy of the call,” and that call is to love God and others like Jesus. Love is unitive. It brings people together. That’s why he tells us to “strive to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.” Our unity, as Jesus prayed during the Last Supper, is meant to resemble the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and is supposed to help convince the world that God the Father sent the Son and that He loves us just as much as he loved the Son. Therefore, when we don’t love each other, when we don’t have the unity that comes from love even in the midst of occasional serious disagreements, we scandalize rather than help Jesus save others. There is so much division in the Church today, in which, rather than truly loving each other, we judge each other, badmouth each other, hold grudges against each other, and sometimes even hate each other. To love our neighbor doesn’t begin by loving those in faraway lands whom we may never meet, but by loving those closest to us, those in our own home, those in the family of faith. Jesus’ words today remind us of our call to love, to have invincible benevolence and mercy toward each other, and he’s prepared to give us together with his body and blood all the help he knows we need to live in a manner worthy of this calling, and make us, in his sacrificial, merciful love, “one body, one Spirit in Christ.”

The love — and its antithesis — seen on September 11 and beyond

The final application is to the somber 15th anniversary we mark today of the abominable terrorist attacks of 911. Terrorism is the exact antithesis of today’s Gospel with regard to love of God and neighbor. The greatest blasphemy against God is to kill his innocent sons and daughters supposedly in his name. But we’re called, as St. Paul told the Romans, “not to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). And that’s what we also mark today: the God-like heroism of so many first responders, at the Twin Towers, at the Pentagon, and on United 93 over Pennsylvania, imitating what Jesus described as the greatest love of all, risking and laying down their lives to save the lives of others; the sacrificial generosity of so many who waited in line for hours to give blood, who reached out to victims’ families, who gave of themselves so generously, who immediately rushed to Church to pray for all those affected. And we also see that when Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, the truth is that sometimes our neighbor makes himself our enemy, just like Judas and so many who called for Jesus’ crucifixion made themselves the enemies of Jesus. Jesus, however, didn’t stop loving them. He prayed for them as he was dying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” Likewise our agape, our unconquerable good will, is meant to extend even toward those who hate us, think we’re the great Satan, and plot to blow us up. This doesn’t mean that we befriend such people, or trust him, or act as “bad shepherds” allowing such wolves to massacre those God has given us to protect; it does mean that, like Jesus, we pray for their total conversion and don’t let their hatred become our way of life. Rather we overcome evil with good, with love, with God.

Loving God in the Mass so that he may help us love others

There’s no greater way to pray than what we are now doing. As we ascend the altar of God, let us ask Jesus to help us to adore and love his Father, himself and the Holy Spirit with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to so transform us by this Mass and through Holy Communion that, as his Mystical Body, we may live in a manner worthy of our calling and bring his healing and saving love to a world and to so many desperate for it.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians
I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew
When the Pharisees heard that he 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.” While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus questioned them, saying, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, “David’s.” He said to them, “How, then, does David, inspired by the Spirit, call him ‘lord,’ saying: “The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet” ‘? If David calls him ‘lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.