We have heard this Gospel before, many times. We know its details fairly well. And, yet, with all this familiarity, today’s passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel still has something to tell us. Jesus is in Jerusalem, actually this is his final visit. He cleansed the Temple, interacted with the elders of the Jewish religion, told several important parables and engaged the Jewish people and those following him in important teachings.
Today’s Gospel finds Jesus confronted by the Pharisees once again --- he had already silenced the Sadducees Matthew tells us. These are two leading Jewish groups --- the Sadducees were the wealthy, powerful group who controlled most of the important positions in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body; the Pharisees, by contrast, were local businessmen, less powerful but more respected by the common Jewish people.
With the Sadducees silenced, it was the Pharisees’ turn to step up and challenge Jesus. Remember, Jesus was on their turf and teaching in the Temple area. So, one of the scholars “tested” Jesus with a question about ‘the law,” something very important to the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus responds without missing a beat. He lays out for them all a rather simple yet complete definition of religion: love God with your entire being and love your neighbor as yourself.
The first part of his answer did not surprise anyone --- it came from the “Shema Israel” of the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5). The second part, from Leviticus (19:18) presented more of a challenge, although you would think just the opposite. As Jesus asks elsewhere in the Gospel, “how can you say you love God whom you cannot see yet fail to love the neighbor you can see?” The bottom line here is quite clear: to be a true believer is to love God and to love those created in his own image, not simply with mere emotion or sentiment but with an enduring, positive commitment.
Today, the Church celebrates “World Mission Sunday.” And our Gospel offers us a great incentive for supporting the Church throughout the world, especially in developing countries and regions. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The fact of the matter is, from its beginnings on the Mountain of Jesus’ Ascension, the Catholic Church has been a missionary Church. Jesus’ command to his disciples before returning to his Father’s side in heaven was “Go” … go teach, go baptize, make all nations my followers, teach them my commandments … do all these things in the world and in the name of God the Father Son and Holy Spirit. And know I am with you to the end.”
My sisters and brothers, Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us that “the proclamation of the Gospel is intended for all peoples (Message, 6 January 2011)” and his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II wrote, “the mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion encyclical Redemptoris Missio, 1).
We have been at this proclamation for over 2,000 years and we still need to work at it. The message requires both words and action: words that identify and connect what we believe with what we do; action that makes our words believable ad real.
The Gospel and God’s grace are truly God’s gifts to us. But, they are not given simply to hold and possess. God gives to us so that we, in turn, may give.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ instruction: “The gift you have received, give as a gift (10:8).” Love is not love if it is kept inside. Love is only love when we give it away. That is true for us as individual, baptized Catholics but also true for us as a parish, a diocese, a Church.
We are richly blessed in our country. There are many in other places who are not so blessed; in fact, they live lives of daily desperation. Today’s Gospel and today’s celebration of World Mission Sunday provide us the occasion to reach out, to “celebrate the hope that saves.”
Few of us will have the opportunity to serve in mission lands or even to visit them. But our Mass today, the Holy Eucharist, offers us the opportunity to pray for our sisters and brothers hearing the Gospel for the first time throughout the world and for those who preach it by dedicated service. We also, once again, are invited to share our blessings generously, whatever we can, no matter how modest. The funds collected are then distributed among over 1000 mission dioceses throughout the world.
My sisters and brothers, what is the greatest commandment? Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Won’t you help us to live Jesus’ words?