Love thy neighbour

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  • August 29, 2008

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 7 (Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20)

Ezekiel has a new job along with excellent incentive to do well. It is nothing less than an offer he can’t refuse: do your job as instructed or die. His assignment is stand as an intermediary between God and Israel. Additionally, he is to warn people when they have strayed from the path and call them back to the ways of God.

One would have to question whether “God” would ever lay such conditions on one called to service, but Ezekiel seemed to experience a special life-or-death urgency in his mission, as have many prophetic men and women throughout history. But the point is still clear and valid: people must have no grounds for pleading ignorance of divine teachings. If they have been warned and persist in their wickedness, then they bear full responsibility for the consequences. There is a sort of ethical deafness that prevents many people from heeding the warnings of the prophets and “sentinels” of our own time.

There are always calls to conversion and they encompass many areas of human activity: economic, social and political policies, church reforms, abortion, war and peace, gender equality, the environment and social justice. But greed, fear and selfishness often filter out the warnings or discredit them. Sometimes enlightenment or conversion occurs only after the suffering, turmoil or disaster resulting from moral indifference. Most of this sort of suffering and misery is so preventable — an open heart and mind works wonders.

Love is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in our language, especially in a religious context. It suffers from a reputation as something “warm and fuzzy” — without substance and requiring little effort. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Paul — along with many others — saw correctly that all of the laws, ordinances and commandments in the Bible can be summed up in the great commandment: love your neighbour as yourself. There are many other commandments, such as the prohibition against stealing, murdering and committing adultery, but all of these are merely expressions of this primal commandment concerning love of neighbour.

Love is never meant to replace any of these ethical practices. Love is the essential element for the full range of authentic human actions. St. Augustine’s “Love and do as you will!” makes a great poster, but he is raising the bar, not lowering it. Love is a demanding taskmaster and a rigourous teacher as well as being very down-to-earth and practical. In the spirituality of love there is enough learning to fill several lifetimes.

The whole point of this passage concerning fraternal correction, binding and loosing, and communal life is summed up in the last verse: where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. The community is comprised of spirit-empowered believers. The community forms a temple or dwelling place for the spirit of God and this spirit is alive in their midst. When united in heart, mind and prayer they can do powerful things: forgive each others’ sins, ask for anything in Jesus’ name and experience God in a personal manner. When division, power politics and selfishness rule, the power of the Christian community is diminished or nullified. Jesus is insisting that we take care of our interpersonal business in the here and now, not after we die. In a sense it is a call to grow up spiritually and work in partnership with God. God will affirm and bless those things that we do with right intention and in harmony with divine teachings and instruct us when we go astray. We can do so much to shape the world in which we live as well as one another. Unfortunately, it is more common to ignore the trust God places in us or to surrender our God-given spiritual powers to others. Our religious communities can regain their spiritual power and once again be healthy places to live, learn and grow. But first we will have to learn how to support as well as challenge one another in honesty, humility and love. This is the responsibility of every baptized Christian.

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