Reflection on the readings for Sunday, September 10, the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time.
In the last few weeks, many families have reached the end of the summer break and have returned to school. I’ve talked to many people in my community, and I’ve seen their posts on Facebook and Instagram, and many of them have had the opportunity over the summer to go to the beach or Disneyland. Other parishioners were able to take a getaway to Petco Park to support the San Diego Padres. But now, sadly, the vacations are over — meaning we have to go back to work or school. Now we have to go back to doing homework!
We all have tasks or “homework.” We adults don’t always call it that, but we too often have extra work that needs to be done, whether it means that we stay a few extra hours at our jobs or that we just take it home. In addition, today’s readings give us three tasks — “homework” — to carry out in our life in community. It must be emphasized that the three tasks go in the same direction, that of charity, and we cannot isolate them one from another.
The first task is to speak or teach what God says. In the first reading we heard the words, “When you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.” Again, we must start with this task from charity. Talking about our spiritual life, about God, or simply teaching about faith can be very powerful, but we have to be careful how we do it. When we talk about faith, we often do it with great passion. This is beautiful: this passion can be a sign that we are in love with our faith, with our Church, with our history and, more importantly, it can be a sign that we are in love with God. The problem is, like salt in our cooking, if we add “too much” it can ruin everything for us. We have to avoid attitudes of proselytizing, political campaigning, condemnation, and damnation towards others. Like any good teacher knows, effective teaching is creative, relational, and charitable. It always begins at the level of our neighbor. We must meet them where they are.
Our second task starts from our second reading, which says, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” With these words, Saint Paul teaches us that the commandments we follow find their fullness in charity: in the love of God and neighbor. Sometimes we look at the commandments as rules or laws “that we shouldn’t break,” rather than as a commandment that departs and returns to and from charity. Put another way, loving God and neighbor fulfills the entire law. Let’s think about this in everyday terms: when a husband and wife love each other, they don’t start their relationship by reading a list of rules for relationships. Rather, first they get to know each other, they start to love each other for who they are, and then the commandments (respect, fidelity, responsibility, etc.) are respected as a consequence of the original love.
Today’s third task, which comes from the Gospel, goes even deeper. It emphasizes attitudes for living charity in community. It teaches us how to respond to friction between people and about the importance of community prayer.
No matter how perfect a community may seem to us — whether it’s a family, a neighborhood, or a parish — it is inevitable that at some point its members will end up in some type of conflict. A community is made up of people with their own ideas, feelings, concerns, and fears, sometimes coming from different backgrounds, upbringings, and cultures. At some point these are going to collide. The gospel tells us precisely how to deal with problems in community: with charity. Very often, we have the tendency to want to correct by humiliating, denigrating, pointing the finger, or insulting. And the worst thing is when we justify it, saying “it is for his own good,” or, “it is for the salvation of his soul.” Today’s Gospel reminds us that dialogue and a fraternal attitude are always the best ways to manage conflict in communities.
Note the language used by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “if two of you agree… it shall be granted.” The verb “to agree” entails dialogue. This dialogue is not simply between members of our community, but also when we pray together. Community prayer builds and sustains a culture of encounter, even sacrifice: “if two of you agree… it shall be granted.” At the heart of this message is a spiritual attitude, once again supported by fraternity and charity. This is because a church — a community that gathers fraternally and in prayer — reflects basic aspects of our faith: the union of the sacred family, the union between the Church in this life, the Church in purgatory, and the Church in heaven — the union of the Communion of Saints.
Just as we have tasks in school, work, and daily life, as Catholic Christians, our identity means we have spiritual tasks. Today’s readings are reminders to speak about what God has spoken to us, to remember that the commandments find their fullness in charity, and cultivate that charity in our communities — particularly when dealing with friction and encouraging a community life sustained by prayer.
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Father Bernardo Lara is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and pastor of three Southern California parishes: Sacred Heart and St. Margaret Mary in Brawley and St. Joseph in Westmorland.