Where Both Meet – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 22:34-40, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

If you and I were Orthodox Jews, and today were Sabbath Day, there would be several things we’d be forbidden from doing, things that constitute work. We’re forbidden from building a fire. So, we can’t use the stove, or light a cigarette, or turn on any switches because switches give off some kind of spark which constitutes fire. What do we do? Well, either we get one of those special timer-switches, or we employ a non-Jew to do it for us. We can’t use machines on the Sabbath. So, we will have to walk to synagogue and back for Sabbath services because the car is a machine. It’s forbidden to press buttons, too, like on the elevator. So, on Sabbaths, elevators are adjusted so that they automatically stop at every floor. What if we live on the 20th floor? Well… we can always take the stairs. It’s forbidden to tear on a Sabbath, too. You need paper towels in the kitchen or bathroom, or prepare vegetables, or unleavened bread, all of which entail some kind of tearing? They’ll have to be pre-torn before the Sabbath. Tying and untying anything is also forbidden. So, we need to own shoes without laces if we want to wear them on the Sabbath. Those are just few of the rules governing one day. More than a hundred more rules govern non-Sabbath days. And we need to know them all if we’re self-respecting Jews who wish to show God we love him. That’s today, sisters and brothers, today’s faithful Jews. You can imagine how much stricter the religious authorities were, back in the Lord’s day? You can imagine how many more rules ruled their daily lives: how they washed, what they may, may not touch, what they may, may not look at, what words rendered their mouths unclean, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. All this to show love of God.

When we’re very, very preoccupied with these minutiae for love ofGod, would we have time to even worry about loving neighbor? That was where the religious hierarchs in Jesus’ time failed in the test. They knew all the rules by heart, above all the thou-shalt-nots. They did all of it to be “righteous,” “holy” in God’s sight. But they failed not just in love of neighbor, but also in love of God. Because to Jesus, sisters and brothers, love of God and love of neighbor are not ordinal. They are co-extensive. They are co-constitutive. In the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, to love God constitutes loving neighbor. To love neighbor constitutes loving God. When one is lacking or absent, the other is also lacking or absent.

I remember a story a priest told me. He said, “Marami sa ating mga Katoliko, parang ‘yung nagbebenta ng manok sa palengke. Habang ini-injectionan niya at ng anak niya ng tubig yung mga manok para bumigat kapag binenta, sasabihin niya sa anak niya, ‘O, bilis-bilisan mo ang pag-iinjection. Mag-a-alas-seis na. Magro-rosary pa tayo!” I also remember our manong telling me about his former senyora. “Naku, Pader, wala pong nagtatagal na kasambahay at driver sa senyora kong ‘yon! Napakasakit pong magsalita. Napaka-matapobre! Pero araw-araw pong nagsisimba ‘yun! At napakaraming paring bisita!” Talking about pari, a friend of mine screen-grabbed someone’s FB post that said: “My parish priest always talks about loving, serving, honoring God. But when we asked him to bless the body of a child who died of Covid in a nearby slums, he said he was protecting an elderly priest in his convent. So, he didn’t go. But he just said a private birthday mass for my friend’s lola at their house.” It’s really so much easier to love God because, well, he’s not poor, doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t get sick, doesn’t offend or hurt us that we’d have to forgive him. He doesn’t wear our patience thin. He never suffers, hungers, or thirsts. He never begs, borrows, or steals from us. And it’s also much easier to love neighbors who are like that.

I’m sure you’re familiar with this analogy of the cross. Many priests have used it in homilies and retreats. The analogy goes that we see in the cross, the two greatest commandments that should rule our relationships: love between us and God, represented by the stipe, the vertical part of the cross—and love between us and our neighbor, represented by the patibulum, the horizontal part of the cross. What we often forget in this analogy, sisters and brothers, is that love of God and love of neighbor don’t just mean loving people who are easy to love, like family and friends, people who share our views. No; there someone nailed on that cross. Where the stipe and the patibulum meet, a person hangs who is suffering, dying, needing rescue; a person who is poor, abandoned, bloody. We Catholics do not pray to a cross as often as we pray to a crucifix; that is, a cross with the suffering Jesus hanging from it. So, love of God and love of neighbor means loving not just our equals, but especially those whom the suffering Jesus represents: the aliens, the widows, the orphans, the poor—like we hear from the first reading.

“You shall love your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind,” Jesus says. “This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “Like it;” coextensive, co-constitutive with loving God. “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Not just the vertical first, not just the horizontal second, but where both meet in the Body of the suffering Christ.

This was why the orthodox hierarchs in Jesus’ day failed in the two greatest commandments, even if they thought they loved God above all because they practiced the law right down to the its jots and tittles. And I’m sure there were times they found this such a heavy cross to bear. Still, they failed in their so-called loving, because their crosses, heavy as they say they were, rose so high yet stood so empty.

*image from the Internet

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