A reflection on the Sunday readings for October 25, 2020
When couples approach me for marriage preparation, they must complete a pre-nuptial inventory form. One part of the inventory concerns the couple’s “spiritual assessment.” Among the questions in this segment is the question, “How do your religious beliefs influence the way you live your daily life?” Eight out of ten couples relate ‘religion’ and ‘being religious’ with treating others right, being good to others, not harming others and similar attitudes. And they are not wrong. However, that is only one aspect of religion, is it not? Today’s Gospel reading is the passage I use to help teach the couples that there is more to religion than ethics and morality.
In this reading from the Gospel, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Mt 22:36). Deep down, he was really asking what religion and being religious is all about. In response, Jesus took two teachings of Judaism and presented them as one seamless reality: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “ You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt: 22:37-39). And then, Jesus concluded by saying, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:40).
Likewise, when I help couples in marriage preparation, I invite them to include love of God and love of neighbor seamlessly into their understanding of religion and being religious. Believe it or not, the conversation takes on a totally new meaning.
How might we reflect on the meaning of true faith and religion from the perspective of the scripture readings for today’s liturgy?
Religious People or People of Faith?
How do your religious beliefs influence the way you live your daily life? Do you think of yourself as a religious person or a person of faith? Is there a difference?
If you search the internet, there are any number of discussions on the difference between faith and religion. My understanding of the difference between religion and faith is demonstrated in the Gospel reading.
The Pharisees, the scribes and the lawyer were religious people. But were they people of faith? We can see from the way Jesus critiques them that the Pharisees’ focus is on the religious aspect of law and the commandments, but they lack faith. Their questions do not concern the deeper reality behind the commandments or how to live them meaningfully. Their focus is on legality.
Conversely, Jesus’ focus is on the God who gave the law. Simultaneously, he is also focused on the human persons for whom the law is created. But there is more. Rather than dwelling on the legality of the law, he is focused on the love demanded by the law. “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Mt 22:37), and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). Here he is teaching us that religion becomes faith only when love of God and love for the neighbor define our religious practices. Religion becomes faith when love replaces legality.
Here is a question for reflection: are we a “religious people?” or a “people of faith”?
When the lawyer asked his question regarding the greatest commandment, his concern was legality. He knew the answer to his question even before he asked it. After all, he was only testing Jesus on behalf of the Pharisees. Perhaps to his amazement, Jesus gave him not one but two commandments and linked them integrally as one, by saying, “The second is like it.”
The greatest commandment, Jesus said, has two equally significant dimensions: love of God and love of neighbor. More importantly, these two commandments are inseparable. To separate one from the other leads to ignoring the very meaning and purpose of “the whole law and the prophets” (Mt 22:40). Pope Francis calls such religiosity (separating love of God and love of neighbor), “practical atheism.”
On October 21, during his general audience address, Pope Francis emphasized the very same point as Jesus on the connection between love of God and love of neighbor. Pope Francis said,
“God cannot stand the ‘atheism’ of those who repudiate the divine image that is imprinted in every human being. That everyday atheism: I believe in God but I keep my distance from others and I allow myself to hate others. This is practical atheism. Not recognizing the human person as the image of God is a sacrilege, an abomination, the worst offense that can be directed toward the temple and the altar.”
Jesus’ response to the lawyer and Pope Francis’ statement adds another dimension to our question. Not only should we ask whether we are a “religious people” or a “people of faith,” but we must also ask ourselves if we are “practical atheists.” Like the lawyer who posed Jesus the question, we probably already know the answer.
Love Without Boundaries
As both Jesus and Pope Francis have taught us, love of God and love of neighbor are integral to a people of faith. But are there limits and boundaries to the love of God and neighbor?
Today’s first reading compels us to reflect on a very contentious topic in our nation’s political discourse—how we treat those who arrive from outside our geographical boundaries. Immigration, migrants, and refugees are hot-button issues in our country, especially as the election approaches. In the first reading from Exodus, God gives a command: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan” (Ex 22:20-21).
People can approach the issue of immigrants from two perspectives: from the perspective of legality (for example by using the term illegal immigrants), or those who approach it from the perspective of the gospel command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). For example, in the latest presidential debate, attention was drawn to the 545 immigrant children separated from their parents. Reports indicate that authorities have lost track of their parents and thus cannot reunite their families. This is a double tragedy because not only did we not give aid to orphans as Exodus 22:21 commands, but we made orphans out of children whose parents cannot be found. We should ask ourselves whether, in our response to the plight of immigrants and asylum seekers, we are a “religious people,” a “people of faith,” or “practical atheists?”
I want to hope that every person reading this reflection is not merely a religious person—or worse, a practical atheist—but a person of faith. As a person and a people of faith, Jesus invites us to respond, not from the perspective of legality, but in love.
In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Pope Francis draws attention to the reality of immigration and immigrants. He says, “All of us, believers, need to recognize that love takes first place: love must never be put at risk, and the greatest danger lies in failing to love” (92). This brings us all the way back to Jesus’ response to the lawyer, “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” (Mt 22:37-40).
Finally, whenever we approach the altar of the Lord, let us not do so as practical atheists, or as merely religious people, but as a people of faith. Let us be a people who loves God and our neighbor unconditionally and without boundaries. Because that is what Jesus, who is truly present in the Eucharist, taught us.
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