Our Gospel celebrates the great commandment of love. To love our neighbour as God does, prejudices based on race, religion or colour have to go. The revelation at Mount Sinai prompted a sense of fairness towards others, deeper than specific commandments. Jesus demonstrates a life of utterly unselfish loving, and invites us to make that our guide to life. For Saint Paul, this imitation of Christ is the core of spirituality
The Lord said to Moses, "Tell the children of Israel this:
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.
If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.
If you take your neighbour's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate."
I love you. Lord, my strength,
my rock, my fortress, my saviour.
My God is the rock where I take refuge;
my shield, my mighty help, my stronghold.
The Lord is worthy of all praise:
when I call I am saved from my foes. (R./)
Long life to the Lord, my rock!
Praised be the God who saves me.
He has given great victories to his king
and shown his love for his anointed. (R./)
Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
All our texts today suggest one clear and practical principle: loving God involves doing practical justice in our world. But even our superficially Christian society is full of people who show little respect for love or justice. Political and economic life is ruled by values far from those of the Gospel. Greed, and fierce desire for power and profit can be seen in our daily papers. We are closer to the paganism mentioned in Paul's letter than we may imagine. Today no less than then, the world is hostile to what Jesus represents, and it is hard for us to take a stand even on important issues of justice and compassion. Our Lord shows love of God and genuine love of the other as two basic aspects of the same call. There can never be a contradiction between the two, even though one may sometimes feel trapped in a situation where a particular law of Church or State seems to create a contradiction.
An approach to the second commandment about love could be by reflecting on how we love ourselves. Love of neighbour becomes virtually impossible in the agone of self-hatred in which some fearful, discouraged people can find themselves. Loving the other as oneself only becomes possible if we have, or can grow into, a healthy, sane level of self-appreciation. This is a sound psychological principle, which should be mentioned in our churches even though Christian love transcends all the transient vogues of psychology. Its ideal is the example of Christ himself, with also his commitment to justice for the poor.
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants who have come to live among us in Ireland. We have moved from a mono-cultural to a multi-cultural, multi-racial society. Today's readings invite us to reflect on how well we receive these strangers, make them feel at home in our society and in our church. "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." They are distinct from us, and, often, different from us. The saying, "Birds of a feather flock together," expresses the evident truth that like attracts like. It is tempting to frequent the company of people like ourselves. Yet, the Lord gathered about himself a community of great diversity. Even within the twelve there was to be found a tax-collector and a zealot, men from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In a similar way, the Spirit of the Lord at work in our lives prompts us to connect with those who are different from us, as well as those who are like us. The one we find initially strange can reveal the Lord to us in surprising ways. We pray for a greater openness to the many ways the Lord comes to us in life.
Life is becoming increasingly complex. We value people who have the gift of getting beyond the multiple dimensions of an issue so as to zoom in on the heart of the matter. Such people prevent us from missing the wood for the trees. They are good at separating out what really matters from the things that are less important. They encourage us to invest our energies in what is really worthwhile, rather than allowing them to be dissipated by what is not significant.
Jesus was a person who knew how to go to the heart of the matter. On one occasion someone asked him to intervene in a family dispute about inheritance. In his reply, he ignored the concrete issue and, instead, he called on the person who approached him to "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed" (Lk 12:13-15). He saw that the real issue was not the details of the particular case but the greed which underlay the dispute.
This capacity of Jesus to get to the heart of the matter is clear from his response to the question put to him by one of the Pharisees in today's gospel reading, "Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?" In the time of Jesus there were known to be 613 commandments in the Jewish Law. The potential here to miss the wood for the trees was enormous. Preoccupation with the detail of regulations could result in people ignoring what really matters, like straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel (Mt 23:24). Jesus answered the Pharisee's question by going straight to the heart of the Jewish law. He was asked if there is one "greatest" commandment, but in reply he named the second greatest commandment as well. For the first commandment, loving the Lord your God with all our heart and soul, is inseparable from the conjoined commandment, of loving my neighbour as myself. For Jesus, what God wants from us above all else is love. There is no genuine love of God unless it finds expression in love of our neighbour. Love of neighbour, in turn, presupposes a healthy self-love, recognising and appreciating myself as fundamentally good, because I am created in the image and likeness of God..
No one could disagree with the ideal of loving God and loving one's neighbour. In preaching this can be a difficulty, in that no one who joins in the Sunday Eucharist would deny this principle. But it's posibble to politely listen and agree, without feeling drawn to any practical conclusion for living. The homilist might offer some examples of how we might better show love of neighbour, but people are not so eager to hear a harangue about sins of omission. Since generic ideals could fail to effectively move people's conscience, one might focus instead on the second reading.
It is clear that Paul mixed closely with the communities whose lives he shared and the authority of his word seems to have sprung from the quality of his life. His attitudes and work-habits were in tune with the message that he delivered. His commitment to the task was evidenced by the troubles he had to bear, while spreading the good news. There was an intrinsic link between what he said and how he lived. The word spoken gave meaning to the life lived and the quality of the life guaranteed the sincerity of the word. The people of Salonika accepted his message and found that it had a power to change their own outlook on life. Paul names their experience "joy of the Holy Spirit." They touched the living Spirit of God in the midst of their own lives.
Genuine human concern that touches lives is an effective sacrament of the transcendent love of God. The homilist might look at the mystery of the Christian God from the point of view of God's transcendence and immanence. The love of God is actually enfleshed in the nitty-gritty of human interpersonal relationships. The authenticity of our religion is guaranteed by the value of our love for real people. One could use the image of the flower that is rooted in the soil; it grows slowly by transforming the elements of the soil in to its own living cells and eventually reaches up to the beauty of the sky with its own form, colour and scent. The one sap enlivens the root, the stalk, the flower and produces the perfume.
A truly Christian life is rooted in the earth and yet reaches up to the mystery of God through living in love. Another possible development might stem from Paul's notin of the Thessalonians" reputation spreading through the surrounding area. People were drawn to the Christian faith by the way these people were leading their lives. The word of the good news diffused itself quietly through people admiring the way the Christians lived. People can be quick to condemn those who have offbeat values or live a different lifestyle. We can fail to appreciate the faltering efforts others make to cope with the struggles of frail human nature. If we could plumb the depths of meaning in our own personal life histories we might be able to forge more effective link with others. The gift of our humanity, savoured and appreciated, can become mirror and window to the mystery of God for ourselves. It can be more a more effective means of evangelisation than all the hype of religious words that often only confirm the "converted" in their convictions.