Sermon for Sunday 31 October 2021
High Mass, 4th Sunday before Advent Fr Michael Bowie
We heard from Deuteronomy 6:
5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
We did not hear from the other text Jesus quoted, Leviticus 19:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.
On these two commandments ‘hang all the law and the prophets’, says Jesus as reported by Matthew. But in Luke’s Gospel the encounter continues:
29 But wanting to justify himself, [the man] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30 Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, …
There are significant differences in Luke’s, the best-known, version, and they matter. Whereas the saying is presented as a stand-alone teaching about the law for Mark and Matthew, Luke treats it as a preface to one of the best-known parables in the canon, the Good Samaritan, a parable about practical Christianity (only recorded by him).
The parable of the Good Samaritan is essentially outward facing: care of neighbour, expanded to mean anyone in need, whether within or without the Jewish or Christian community. It is framed to commend the breaking down of barriers and taboos in the outworking of faith. A ‘good Samaritan’ was an oxymoron to Jesus’ listeners; the Priest and the Levite, whom he wrong-foots in the parable, would have attracted their amused sympathy. But that story compromises the balance of the saying.
St Paul writes to the Galatians (5.14):
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
In Galatians 5, before the Gospels were written down, Paul commends good relationships in the Christian community: mutual service, acceptance and respect. References to this Leviticus text, 19.18, are lacking in Jewish literature before Paul and allusions to it are given no prominence by the Rabbis, yet it is the passage from the Pentateuch most often cited in the NT. It is also quoted at Romans 13.9 where Paul concludes that ‘love is the fulfilment of the law’. He makes no reference to Deuteronomy 6, our first reading, the Shema, the daily declaration of love and worship for God which are foundational for Judaism. Instead he turns again to Leviticus 19 in his recalibration of the Law.
At James 2.8, we hear
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
And the saying is found in the Didache, the earliest patristic text, at the end of the first century, almost contemporaneous with the Gospels.
The use of this text from Leviticus,
You shall love your neighbour as yourself,
is distinctively Christian rather than rabbinical; it derives from Jesus himself. I labour that scriptural pedigree because both poles of the statement are intended be heard in balance; every time the New Testament records it the citation is the same.
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Aside from the ‘who is my neighbour’ question (which the Good Samaritan parable answers in full), this recasts the law as a call for practical love: not a vague feeling for humankind stretched so thin as to be non-existent at particular points of need, but one which utilizes the resources which one has to hand in specific ‘Jericho Road’ situations.
This is hammered home in the next chapter of Galatians, where Paul finds no difficulty in linking faith with doing ‘good works’, including beyond the boundaries of the Christian community.
Failing to hear the balance of the saying, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, has skewed generations of Christian witness. We know why: the earliest monks and spiritual writers had ambivalent feelings about their bodies; they thought that the body was generally to be feared as the instrument through which we could sin. Also, the idea of a ‘person’ as we understand it is very much a modern psychological construct: there was body and spirit, perceived to be at war (Paul wasn’t such a help here).
So Christians were encouraged to tame the body through prayer, mortification and penance. These ideas held sway until Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and Jesuit theologians of the 16th century argued for a more balanced understanding. They taught that while the body can lead us into sin it is also, scripturally, a temple of the Holy Spirit and a vehicle of God’s grace. But in the 16th century Cornelius Jansen denounced Aquinas and the Jesuits and argued for the earlier body-hating view as authentic Christianity. Though denounced by the Church at the time, his ideas became deeply rooted in European and American Christianity and their missionary churches. The belief that our body and its desires are evil and that we must harshly mortify our bodies is still prominent in Christian thought. More tragically, that view is seen by the world as the gospel. The unfolding abuse crisis in the Church is directly linked to this error, as is the understandable disgust of the world at what it perceives as hypocritical moralising by the Church. But Jesus insists that we cannot call ourselves Christians if we hate God, hate our neighbour or hate ourselves. Crucially we now know that ourselves are a whole, ‘our souls and bodies.’ To offer them as a whole and spiritual sacrifice, as Paul himself asks, we must nurture and love them.
Secular society has gone a long way in the direction of self-love, sometimes in a deliberate and explicit rejection of what it understands as Christianity. Selfie-culture and the lengths to which some people go to achieve a sculptured or enhanced body, the increase in eating disorders and body-shaming, the cult of the gym and the sex industry, point to a culture very much in love with itself.
Jesus does not call us to that narcissistic selfie-love. ‘Love of self’ goes wrong when it becomes self-worship, when it overturns the first commandment that he quotes from Deuteronomy. But if we have no sense of our own dignity and worth, or the personal love of God for each of us, it is impossible for us to give the same love to others or to claim from others the dignity we long for.
Proper love of the self is not about canonizing a loss of self-control. Jesus shows us, by the way he loved his Father, us, and himself, that true love involves sacrifice. That is sacrifice in its proper sense, not just giving things up but hallowing them, as we do in offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass (in which, in the mixing of the elements of water and wine in the chalice, we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice). If we love ourselves as Jesus calls us to do, we will learn both the self-control to forgo things that are self-destructive and the generosity to do for others the things that will enrich their lives and ours. True sacrifice is a balanced offering which hallows the giver as well as honouring the receiver.
We cannot offer what we do not have; we can never love others if we hate ourselves.