Reflection on the readings of October 29, 2023, the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Friends, in the past couple of years, Catholic media has been agog with anything newsworthy about Pope Francis. Some have reported correctly and have sought to understand Pope Francis and how his teaching is in continuity with his predecessors, while others have slandered Pope Francis and described him as a heretic. Some have even gone as far as questioning his Catholicity. Is Pope Francis a Catholic?

The common argument against Pope Francis is that he preaches mercy, love of the sinner, and inclusivity. As a result, they say that Pope Francis is too soft on sin. They say that he is open to same-sex marriage and communion to the divorced and remarried, and he focuses too much on ecology and climate change instead of red-button issues like abortion. For these critics of Francis, everything about Francis must be read through the lens of discontinuity and rupture. Pope Francis is a problem. In fact, some have even come as close as wishing for Francis’s death.

Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, these critics seek to trap Pope Francis, instead of listening to him and understanding him. To say the least, they lack the mercy that Pope Francis ardently preaches and the love of neighbor that the Gospels command. This means that the lack of love, that is, “the best in us seeking the best in others” is the problem, not Pope Francis.

In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 22:34-40), the Pharisees obviously lack love. Their interest lies in protecting and enforcing the 613 commands of the Mosaic Law. They see Jesus as a threat to the Mosaic Law instead of the giver of the Law and its fulfillment. They couldn’t see Jesus. All they could see was the threat to the Mosaic Law, and since Jesus was the threat, he therefore deserved to die.

How I wish they had known the Law they so scrupulously sought to protect! They would have understood that the Law doesn’t need protecting, rather it is they, the Pharisees, that needed protecting by the Law. The Law needs to protect them from the error of self-authorization and self-righteousness. The Law needs to protect them from ignorance, hate, bitterness, and slander of neighbors. The Law needs to protect them from murdering Jesus, the Christ.

However, they can’t hear any of these. They are obsessed with protecting the Law instead of being protected by the Law. They want to protect the Savior instead of being saved by the Savior. Jesus, seeing them through and through, called them out. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself.”

In other words, you must wish and will in your heart and mind the good of God and your neighbor and become that which you wish and will in your soul. The best in you must seek the best in others, not their worst. That is, you must have the eyes of mercy, to see not merely what things are — the sins of the sinner, but also what things can be — the possibility of the sinner becoming a saint like Saul becoming Saint Paul, Augustine becoming Saint Augustine, Edith Stein becoming Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and Dorothy Day in the process of becoming Saint Dorothy Day.

This is an onerous task. It demands the conversion of heart and mind that Pope Francis consistently preaches. It demands a shift from seeing oneself solely from one’s own perspective to seeing oneself in the eyes of one’s neighbor and indeed from God’s perspective. The burden of this shift is that we will all be challenged and threatened by the other, which is why the neo-Pharisees can’t stand the preaching of mercy and love.

As Jonathan Sacks rightly argues, it is people unlike us, gays, the poor, the divorced and the remarried that make us grow and become better human beings and better Christians. Unfortunately, this growth can’t happen when we are insulated from these people. Again, we need to be converted from our buffered selves and become our porous selves, as Charles Taylor aptly puts it. This is because love demands a kind of recklessness and mess.

Love, God, wasn’t born in pristine Palaces where the law is followed to the letter. No! Love, God, was born in the manger, where things weren’t perfect, rather they were messy — full of animal droppings and where the lover, Christ, was vulnerable. The irony is that it is the vulnerable Jesus who is protecting his seemingly strong parents. Therefore, if we truly believe that Jesus is love, the Law and the fulfilment of the Law as the Gospels relate, to love would mean to be born in the mess of human existential reality as Jesus was. It means to be vulnerable and porous as Jesus. For at the end of the day, love is the fulfilment of God’s moral Law (Romans 13:8-10 and the Catechism no. 1822-1824). Love is the Greatest Commandment.

Image: Pope Francis visit to a Caritas center for the homeless in Rome Dec. 18, 2015. (photo/Vatican Media)

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Fr. Francis Afu is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Armidale, Australia. He is currently undertaking a PhD Research Fellowship in the United States.

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