Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
May the transforming love of God overflow in your hearts, pouring out from His side, through you, His Body, to heal our broken world. You have each been made His, claimed for Him and incorporated into Him in the tomb of Holy Baptism. Live, then, only in Him!
Last week, we heard the very challenging Gospel (Mt 22:15-21) in which the Pharisees try to trap Jesus with a question with no right answer. Is it right, they ask, to pay tax to Caesar? Is it possible, in other words, to support the oppressive and idolatrous foreign government that has conquered Israel? If Jesus says yes, he is a collaborator; if He says no, he is a traitor. Jesus in his response makes a clear distinction between what “belongs to Caesar,” and what “belongs to God.” Do we, today, make the same distinction?
This Sunday, we will hear yet a third challenge to Jesus’s authority (Mt 22:34-40). Despite the fact that the common people “were amazed at His teaching” (Mt 22:33), clearly grasping the fundamental truths He was preaching, the Pharisees set out yet again to trap Him. Again, they ask Him a question that has no correct answer: “What commandment of the Law is the greatest?” To be a Jew at that time meant to obey all the commandments in the first five books of the Scriptures. Those books contain more than 500 concrete commandments from God, and many hundreds more immediately implied by or derived from them. To an orthodox Jew of Jesus’s day, no one commandment could be more important than any other, since all came directly from God. It was precisely in the hard effort to obey the whole of God’s Law that Jews found their unique identity.
Whatever commandment Jesus points to, then, the Pharisees expect to rejoin, “Yes, but what about this law here?” But Jesus again surprises them. Knowing perfectly, as He does, “both the Scriptures and the loving power of God,” Jesus sums up the whole Law perfectly: “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The Pharisees cannot argue with this. They leave, and “no one dared to ask Him any more questions” (Mt 22:46).
It is precisely in the hard effort to love God with our whole heart, and soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, that we Christians find our unique identity. To be a Christian, to bear Christ’s holy Name in our very flesh, just as He bore our wounds in His flesh, means to love God and neighbor, no matter the cost to ourselves. Do we, today, live this “greatest commandment” to love without measure?
In responding to these three “character assassinations” attempted against Him, Jesus is not just defending Himself. He is defending us, now today. These same questions are asked of us as Christians today, with the same tone of malicious contempt; and the same response is still the correct one in each case. These three questions are phrased today in terms of “separation of Church and State” in politics, and “independence from authority” in social issues. These two are really the same point, because, if the State is free from Christ’s moral guidance, so is the individual; and if the individual cannot accept any authority external to himself, then neither will the State.
Thus, the “pharisaical” view today demands a rigidly secular government, a “naked public square,” as it has been called, devoid of faith. Any view or value rooted in faith, no matter how defensible by natural logic and common sense, is discounted. The very idea of shared value itself is discounted. For the most pharisaical of modern secularists, the only value is the isolated experience of the autonomous individual. The only things that “belong to God” are those that fall completely outside the realm of public life. But as the State becomes ever more intrusive into our schools, families, businesses, and homes, there is less and less that falls outside its scope. Ultimately, nothing “belongs to God,” and everything, even our souls, “belongs to Caesar.”
In the same way, the pharisaical view today also argues that each individual must define his or her own reality, based entirely on private experiences, not on anything learned from anyone else. Therefore, this view argues, it is clearly wrong to deprive someone of an experience, or to thwart their desires in any way, because you are then effectively depriving them of their full identity and humanity. This is especially clearly argued on the issue of so-called “gay marriage,” but the same attack on Christ is also used to defend other intrinsic evils, such as abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.
Should we, then, as Christians, accept this “invincible ignorance” of Scripture and the loving power of God? Should we accept the naked public square, withdraw into our ghetto of faith, and capitulate on the true nature of authority? We would be “hypocrites” (Mt 22:18) to do this, and still call ourselves by the name of Christ. If we belong to Christ, it can only be because we, too, “are amazed at his teachings,” hearing Him refute so powerfully and compellingly the viciousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Those of us whom Christ has loved back from the depths of sin can attest to this fact: the overweening State and the pursuit of personal gratification through variety and depravity of experience inevitably leave one more hungry, not less. Only Christ, the “bread of life,” satisfies that deep inner craving for real food. “We are made to love God,” not the surfeit of our own glutted will, as St. Augustine attests; “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”
As those who belong to Christ, we must demonstrate convincingly that love of God and neighbor which Christ commanded. This love costs us; it is not easy to be a faithful Christian. But as so many martyrs for Christ have shown in every age, the price is worth paying! We demonstrate our commitment to this love today especially by our unrelenting defense of the intrinsic dignity of each human life, from conception to natural death. We cannot accept abortion, for every single act of abortion slays not only a human being, but the possibility of faith in Christ for those whose faith is weak. We cannot accept euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning, because continuing to act as if human life is not sacred will inevitably make us believe that God is not sacred. We cannot accept just any definition of marriage, because the indiscriminate glorification of sexual desire will inexorably lead to justifying every form of illicit domination. Anyone today who claims that these tragedies of human weakness are not gravely evil, or can be supported or condoned in order to oppose other evils, stands among the crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees, baiting and rejecting Christ.
Unless we allow our Lord Jesus Christ to heal us and our nation in these most fundamentally brutal ways first, we will never make headway against the many other kinds of injustice that oppress us. This is our identity as American Catholics. This is our response to the Gospel of Life of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is how the loving power of God makes itself felt in the darkest corners of the world today. Pray with me, that the power of Christ’s own words, as Word of God, may give us the strength to say yes to Him each day; that our fidelity to His call may be the means of conversion for those who know Him not; and that we may never fail in courage to bear His Cross on our hearts openly, in everything we say and do.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
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