October 22, 2008

Backdoor Strategy

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 22: 34-40 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A little boy was standing before a shoe store, barefooted, peering through the window, and shivering with cold. A lady approached the young boy and said, “Why are you here?” The boy replied, “I ask God to give me a pair of shoes.” The lady took him by the hand, went into the store, and asked the clerk to get a pair of shoes for the boy. She then asked if he could give her a basin of water and a towel. She took the little fellow to the back part of the store and, removing her gloves, knelt down, washed his little feet, and dried them with the towel. Then she lovingly helped the boy wear the new shoes. As she turned to go, the astonished kid caught her by the hand and looking up into her face, with tears in his eyes, asked her. ‘Are you God’s wife?’ She smiled and said, “Why did you say that?” The boy smiled and said, “Because you answered my prayer.”

In our gospel for today, when a scholar of the law came to Jesus asking what’s the greatest commandment, it was not to trap Jesus, but to find comfort from the burdened of following 613 Jewish laws (365 are prohibitions and 248 were actions to be done). It was already difficult for them to remember and teach 613 laws, how much more to follow them to the letter as imposed by the Pharisees. Jesus knew their burden. “They are heavy yokes that oppress and weary the people” (Matthew 11:28). And so Jesus replied by quoting a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy, “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Every Jews knows the verse by heart for they say it twice in their morning and evening prayers.

For the Jews, “to love God” means to offer Him sacrifices and prayers. For the Pharisees, it means strictly observance of Sabbath rules and worshipping God in the temple -. at the expense of ignoring the needs of people. And for us, we sometimes express our love to God by attending the Sunday Mass, praying the rosary, attending the novena in Baclaran and Quiapo, a pilgrimage to Fatima and Lourdes, praising God in the weekly prayer meeting, attending the Quiapo and Antipolo midnight processions and other liturgical celebrations. They are important part of our Christian tradition but these are not enough.

Loving God by doing these things alone will not make us a “true blooded Christians.” We need to show to our God that our love for Him is not just a skin deep. We need to do something more tangible and liberating as we recall God’s word: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 12:7). And so Jesus gave us the second but equally important commandment by quoting a verse from Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). We see that neither of these two commands is original to Jesus. But then neither is the placing of them both together unique to Jesus. In certain Jewish writings they are placed side-by-side in a sort of parallelism. Thus, loving God and loving others are intrinsically connected. They are inseparable. But for the Jews, when we think of neighbours, it means a fellow Jews and not a stranger. But Jesus widens the definition of neighbours to include everyone including our enemies (Matthew 5:44). John in his first letter even remarked, “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)

In the good old days when iPod and internet are not yet invented, for a gentleman, to court a lady is to court her parents as well. If a gentleman can get the approval of the lady’s parent, he can easily get the sweet “yes” of the lady. That’s backdoor strategy and it works: fetch water, cut fire woods, chocolates for the grandchildren and win their hearts. A friend of mine won the heart of a beautiful young widow by playing and spending time with her son. Backdoor strategy! An Atenean student who fell in love to a varsity player suddenly finds interest in reading a sports magazine and starts thinking of becoming a varsity player too in the hope that her crush will notice her. Enter into the heart of your beloved by loving what’s in his/her heart. That’s backdoor strategy!

The same thing is true for God. If we really love God and wants to please Him, we should love the people He loves (including his enemies). When Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God, he cannot help but to reveal what’s inside his heart: the poor, the sick, the neglected, the marginalized and the sinners. Thus, he said, “You shall love your neighbour.” Love the poor and Jesus will be extremely happy. Backdoor strategy! But to make this loving of others more true and sincere, Jesus added “love your neighbour as yourself.” For the way we love ourselves is a good norm to love others. That’s a tough act to follow and Jesus recognized it, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

To love God and to love our neighbour looks like a very simple concept. Jesus however shows how challenging this is. His love of the Father led him to reach out to the outcast, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and others. For Jesus there is no distinction between these two commandments. One naturally flows from the other. Love is not love unless it is free and spontaneous.

What Jesus proposes are not just commandments or rules to follow but a whole approach to life and to our relationship with others. It is His way of life. Jesus identifies himself with those in most need of love and compassion. We should also naturally identify ourselves with Jesus’ way of life. It is also our way of life … and our Christian identity.

A visitor to the New Bilibid Prison Hospital watched a young volunteer dressing an infected bed sores of a dying prisoner. The visitor was horrified by the bed sores but admired the volunteer who seemed not affected by the bad smell of the sores as he was cleaning the wound. “I wouldn’t do that for a thousand pesos.” said the visitor. “Neither would I,” said the volunteer, “but I am doing it for God.”

Fr.Willy M. Samson, SJ
Fort Pilar Shrine
October 26, 2008

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