30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ex 22:20-26; 1Thes 1:5c-10; Mt 22:34-40
In our gospel reading this morning we heard the whole of Christianity and Judaism summed up in two phrases. These two major world religions were still one when Jesus made his simple reply to the Pharisee’s tricky question. Here we have the gist of our beautiful religion: Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s such a positive, up-building message. The world would have been such a better place if we could have actually put it into practice.
When we have a good team spirit things go so much more smoothly and life is so much more enjoyable. We need to see other people we encounter as being on the same team, not opponents or competitors. If we’re one team or family, we spontaneously want to encourage them and help them to be the best they can be. Their gifts and talents and contributions don’t make us look worse. They make the team look better. God is the father of this wonderful family and anything we do to increase the well-being and happiness of our brother or sister gives God joy, and that’s all that really matters. If we’re loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul, then giving him pleasure is our sole aim.
I see individualism as one of the main threats to this scenario proposed in our gospel. In the last few decades, it has become increasingly more common to “look out for #1”. Instead of thinking of ways to make the world a better place or improving the lot of the local community, too often the dominant thoughts are: How can I make more money, How can I acquire more possessions, How can I increase pleasure or excitement or entertainment in my life? A lot of time and energy and funds are expended in these pursuits, and, in comparison, very little in ways to give pleasure to God or make my neighbor’s life more pleasant.
I think there is healthy self-love and unhealthy self-love. The words of Jesus that we are considering assume a healthy self-love. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we feel good about ourselves, it is that much easier to reach out to our neighbors and make them feel loved. This is all preceded, of course, by love of God – by putting him first; by loving him with our whole heart, mind, and soul. That is the first commandment. Only after that comes the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. If you were to do a survey today and ask the average person between 20 and 50 a series of questions, love of God would probably be a ways down on their list of priorities.
Selfishness and self-centeredness does not bring happiness. That is an unhealthy type of self-love. We were made to give ourselves away, to share our gifts. When we turn in on ourselves and hoard our gifts, we bring unhappiness on ourselves. And when we’re unhappy, we just make life that much more unpleasant for the people around us. On some level, we feel that things aren’t quite right, that life is out of kilter. If we were putting God first, and our neighbor second, and our own desires third, we would start obtaining that inner peace and happiness and fulfilment and contentment that we’re all longing for.
Last Sunday, in his homily, Fr. John mentioned Fr. Stanley Rother, who was beatified on September 23rd. As you might remember, he was originally a diocesan priest from Oklahoma and served the people of Guatamala during 13 very turbulent years and was eventually martyred there. He quite obviously put love of God first, love of neighbor second, and love of self third. He knew his life was in danger, but he did not flee. His beatification was a little over a month ago – just a regular American like ourselves – born in 1935, murdered in 1981.
In a little over two weeks from now, on November 18th, in Detroit at Ford Field, another regular American from our own era will be beatified: Fr. Solanus Casey – a Capuchin friar. He is one more wonderful example of someone who lived his life for God and his neighbor and forgot about himself. This attitude and orientation brought him deep inner peace and serenity. It caused him to be like a magnet – people flocked to him. If you’ve seen pictures of him, he bears a striking resemblance to our own Br. Christian Walsh. The similarity stops there, though! Just kidding!
Because Fr. Solanus wasn’t focused on himself, it didn’t bother him that he was a “simplex” priest – a priest with restricted faculties. He had struggled through his seminary classes (due mainly to the fact that they were in German) and so he was not allowed to hear confessions or preach doctrinal sermons. But for him, this was no obstacle to love God with all his heart, mind, and soul; and his neighbor as himself. During his life, this humble Capuchin priest performed many simple tasks in the friaries where he was stationed, but he is remembered mostly as the doorkeeper at St. Bonaventure Friary in Detroit. Because of his simplicity and warmth, many people flocked to him for consolation and healing, and miracles were not uncommon. They came looking for cures from cancer, heart disease, and tuberculosis. They came seeking help for broken marriages, broken hearts, and broken lives. Those wanting to find spiritual health and renewal did not go away disappointed. He was remarkably low-key in his approach, but visitors continued to seek him out even after his poor health restricted his availability. Fr. Solanus Casey died in Detroit in 1957 and an estimated 20,000 people passed by his coffin prior to his burial. His body was found to be incorrupt in 1987.
Our gospel today gives us the recipe for happiness in our lives. It maps out for us how we should be arranging our priorities. Paradoxically, if we put love of self first, happiness with escape us. If we put love of God and neighbor in the first two slots, however, joy and peace will naturally follow as a by-product.