Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Thirty-first Sunday: Any Questions?
After this, no one had the courage to ask him any more questions.
Many many years ago I taught in a high school, St. Dominic Savio High School in Boston. I never minded if the students asked me questions. I taught science and mathematics. These are difficult subjects with constant exposure to new concepts for high school people. Questions were one of the ways that the students could grasp the subject matter. In fact, I think that every teacher would agree that a good teacher wants his or her students to ask questions. However, every now and then a student asks questions not to try to learn, but to see if he or she can expose a weakness the teacher may have in the field. An extremely intelligent student might ask a question that he or she knows the answer to just as a test to see how much the teacher knows. If the teacher makes the mistake of guessing what the correct answer would be and is wrong, the student will then disparage the teacher to the rest of the class.
This is the type of question that our gospel reading refers to when it says that after Jesus answered the young man, no one had the courage to ask him any more questions. People could not trap Jesus, because they knew that he understood far more about what he was teaching than they could ever grasp.
Jesus had just answered the main question that was debated by ancient Jewish scholars, and is still debated by the Pharisees among us, and ourselves when we get into a pharisaical frame of mind. That question is: What is the most important thing that I have to do to serve God. What is the first commandment? What is the one thing that, well, if I do this, I don't have to worry about missing any of the other commandments? How can I get the most reward for the minimum of service to God?
Jesus responded with two quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first was from Deuteronomy 6:4. It is called the Shema Israel. This was the ancient prayer that was and is said by the Jewish people every morning and every evening. It is a prayer that they kept in a packet at their doors so they could take it with them wherever they go. "Shema Israel, Hear O Israel, You shall love the Lord with your whole heart, whole mind and whole soul." Jesus added something to that prayer, a part of another verse from another book of the Hebrew Bible. From Leviticus 19:18, Jesus added: "and you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
“You shall love your God with your whole heart, your whole mind and whole soul and your shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus' simple statement embraces everything we need to do to serve God. And yet, it demands a radical change in our lives and a radical change in our whole perception of religion. Every action of our lives is included in this law.
We are all made in God's image and likeness. We are called to reverence the Lord in the many ways in which he is present in his world. When we love other people, we are loving people who themselves are unique reflections of the presence of God. We cannot love God and hate others. Sometimes people say that they pray hard, they come to Church often, but they don't feel they are making any progress in their spiritual life. Maybe we all feel this way at times. Perhaps, when we feel this way we need to ask ourselves if we are at peace with other people. We may not like someone, but if we are full of hatred for someone, we are destroying the love of God within us.
Maybe the young man of the Gospel, and perhaps we, to some degree or other, just want a simple list of what not to do to other people. Certainly we priests are always asked, "Father, is it wrong to do this, or that?" The great teachers of wisdom throughout history did exactly this. They gave the negative directive: Don't do to others as you wouldn't want them to do to you. Jesus is the only person in history who has given a positive directive: This is what you are to do--Respect God's image within others and reverence this image just as you wish others would respect and reverence the image of God in which you were created. When we can say, “I am only doing what I would want another person to do for me if I were in this situation,” then we are living the one commandment of loving God with our whole heart, mind and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves.
People used to ask Mother Theresa why she cared for the poor, dying on the streets. They would point out to her that these people weren’t even Christian. Her response was, "How can you love God and not care for his image?" To this we can add, “We don’t help others according to whether they are Catholic or not. We help them because we are Catholic.” God doesn't expect us to leave our families and go to the poorest countries of the world to seek out those who need the most help, but he does expect us to reverence His Presence in others. God doesn't want us to be bogged down in a quagmire of laws, but he does expect us to live out the one law of loving him with all our hearts, minds and souls and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
The people who heard Jesus speak realized this. After he spoke no one dared ask him any question. Nor should we ever question the Law of Love.