"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

October 29, 2017

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2017

Filed under: Homilies — Tags: , , — komonchak @ 3:16 pm

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 29, 2017 – St. John’s, Goshen

Some things never change. To illustrate the second of the great commandments stated by Christ in today’s Gospel, we heard an extract from the Book of Exodus. The events described in this, the second book of the Bible, date from around thirteen centuries before Christ and were first handed down in oral traditions which began to be written down and combined into a narrative some centuries later. The section from which our reading was taken is known to scholars as “the Book of the Covenant,” because it sets down prescriptions that embody Israel’s responsibility in the covenant, or pact, that God struck with her at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It may have become part of the book long after the Israelites entered the Promised Land, that is, around six centuries before Christ. In other words, we have listened to moral prescriptions, commandments, that are at least 2,500 years old, and were written for a land far away and a culture far different.

But, as I said, some things never change. It is not possible to hear those words without thinking about circumstances and challenges of our own time and place. Let’s look at the text closely, and allow me to illumine the prescriptions by citing a commentary on the Book of Exodus [by Martin Noth], published in Germany 75 years ago, that describes them as “aiming to protect those who are underprivileged in law, work and society (personae miserabiles)”.

And so we have, first: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” This command, and its reason, is repeated twice elsewhere in these first books of the Bible: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of an alien, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God” (Lv 19:33). Here is the commentary:

The stranger [or: “alien”] is one who lives outside his family and his tribe and entrusts himself to the protection of an individual or a community. As he is in this situation without his own portion of land and his own legal representation, it is directed that he should be shown the customary laws of hospitality and not be “wronged”, a phrase which refers principally to exploitation in work.

Next we have: “You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.” Commentary: “Even widow and orphan enjoy the protection of apodictic law, as they lack the legal protection of husband and father and are therefore liable to ‘affliction’, as for example the brutal exploitation of their capacity for work…. God will hear the cry of widow and orphan, i.e., the cry for help of those who are unjustly oppressed, and will relentlessly punish the evil-doer.”

Next, we have prescriptions about lending money. Commentary: “Usury is forbidden…. The practice of charging interest which was usual in trading and commerce throughout the ancient East is not allowed in dealing with anyone who is ‘poor’; he borrows money for pressing needs, not to finance himself in commercial undertakings….

Finally, there is a rule with regard to a pledge for a loan (what we call collateral). Commentary: “Once again a poor man is considered who can give only his garment, i.e., his long overcoat, as a pledge for a loan; this he needs urgently, at least at night, because he has nothing else to serve him as an underlay and a covering when he goes to sleep. His coat is therefore to be restored to him before the sun goes down, in which case, of course, the use of the coat as a pledge is completely illusory.”

Some things never change. The prescriptions set out to govern the ancient Israelite society would not have been necessary unless those abuses were taking place. Twenty-five hundred years later, they are still taking place, and we should regard it as more than coincidental, as in fact providential, that this Scripture was read out to us today in condemnation and in challenge. There are resident aliens without rights among us today; among us today there are widows and children facing exploitation; interest rates today approach what was once condemned as usury; people today are trapped in debts impossible to escape. If someone tells you that the human race has made great progress over the centuries, read this passage from Scripture. Some things never change.

Today’s Gospel will not allow us to consign those commands to a time long ago and to a place far distant. When asked which one of the great multitude of commandments in the Old Testament was the most important, Jesus responded that there were two of them on which all of the other commandments depended: “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.” No one else in the Bible, before or after Jesus, and no one elsewhere in the ancient world, put those two commandments together in this fashion. This is an unmistakable teaching of Jesus himself which it is impossible for us to get around. All that we are about is summed up in the commands that we love God and our neighbor.

As for the phrase: Love your neighbor as yourself”: this doesn’t mean what a modern self-help book might suggest: that we can’t love anyone else unless we love ourselves, however true that might be. As with regard to God, “love” here isn’t a matter of feeling but of willing and doing good. The meaning is the same as what is found in the text from Leviticus that Jesus is citing: It means, as one scholar [John Meier] puts it: “the neighbor must be accorded all the rights, privileges, support, and honor that the person addressed in the command expects and receives from the community.” And our first reading extends that command to include the defenseless: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself.” In other words, it comes close to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; do not do unto others what you would not like done unto you.”

Some things, I said, never change. There will, it seems, always be defenseless people: refugees, widows, orphans, the poor–whole groups of people lawyers refer to as personae miserabiles–wretched people–, and there will always be people ready to take advantage of them. But, as these biblical texts from thousands of years ago also attest, among the things that never change there can also be people who rise up in defense of the defenseless, and it is up to us to decide if in our world, in our country, in our community this also is among the things that never change.

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