Homily – 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 31st, 2021

Only certain songs pass the test of time and are still sung or played on the radio decades after they first came out. One such song is Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” which made its debut in 1974.  If you’re not familiar with it, the song is centered on a little boy who absolutely adores his father. The child wants nothing more than his father’s attention, but his father is too busy with work and commitments. The father keeps promising that he will, someday, make time for his son. That future time never happens as the boy matures into adulthood. All through the song we hear about the boy’s desire to grow and become like his father. (“I’m gonna be like you Dad, you know I’m gonna be like you”). The irony and the tragedy are that his wish, to become like his father, does comes true. The song ends with the father as an old man, and the son cannot seem to make time to visit him. He did become his father.  Two vignettes.

Vignette number one: A father, on his way out the door to work, has to step over his child who is playing with blocks right in the middle of the doorway. Once inside the car as he turns the ignition on, the radio automatically comes on, and Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” is playing. The father gets hit with a tremendous feeling of guilt and returns to the house. He sits on the floor to play with his son. The first thing out of the perceptive son’s mouth is, “Daddy, why do you hate me?” What is understood in the mind of this young child is, “I know I’m keeping you from doing what you really want to do. You’re here with me out of guilt, not love. I might only be four, but I’ve figured that much out.” The child knew from what space the father was doing what he was doing. It was clearly a space of guilt, not a space of love.

Vignette number two: Mother Teresa is approached by one of her sisters, a novice sister, with a suggestion. She suggested to Mother Teresa that since there was so much important work to be done caring for the sick and dying in the streets of Calcutta, they should cut their one-hour morning prayer down to a half hour at most. Mother Teresa said, “No. Instead of one hour of meditation they might all do better with two hours.” Mother Teresa was very much aware out of what space within herself she did things. 

Jesus cares not only for actions but cares equally as much about where those actions flow from within us. Jesus knew we could follow all the laws of Church and society and yet do it in such a way that concealed hearts that were far from love of God and far from love of neighbour. I can say, “Thank you for your time” but really mean, “Stop bothering me.” I can give a street person $5, and on the surface, it looks like a good thing. But if that gesture is my concealed way of washing my hands of the person, then what good is it? I can abstain from eating meat on Friday faithfully observing church requirements while, at the same, time enjoy a luscious lobster dinner. What good is that doing me or anyone else? I can play blocks with my 4-year-old, but if it comes from a place of guilt, I better be ready to answer the question, “Why do you hate me?” 

When the Scribe, in today’s gospel, approaches Jesus with the question, “Which commandment is first of all?” Jesus knows it is coming from a good place within this man. So often, Jesus is questioned by a Scribe or Pharisee simply as a trap, a set up. They usually want to get Jesus to say something publicly, so they can use it against him. This is not the case with this Scribe. He asks Jesus a question because he is genuinely interested in knowing the answer. He wants to know, and he wants to grow. He is sincere. Before Jesus gives him the classic answer of loving God and loving neighbour, he says something interesting. Jesus quotes his own Hebrew Scriptures, the Scriptures all good Jews—including this Scribe—would be familiar with. Jesus says, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one…” In other words, the Divine–God–is one. And if we are to imitate God, then we should imitate this oneness by bringing ourselves, our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength—everything that we are—into alignment with the oneness that is God. How do we do that? There is only one way according to Jesus, it is the way of love. Love God and love neighbour and you will be aligned with God who is one. St. Augustine called this the “rule of love.”

There is no split in God, nor is there a split in God’s love. There is a split in me when I give a street person $5 as a means of getting rid of him, as a way of quelling a guilty feeling within me, or as a way of inflating my ego. Those are all splits and none of them say, “the Lord is one.” None of these flows from a space of love of neighbour and certainly not love of God. By summarizing and prioritizing hundreds of laws into the love of God and neighbour, Jesus is telling us what the unifying principle should be underneath everything we do. 

It seems Jesus is asking us to go inside, love God first, but don’t stop there or the whole endeavor falls apart. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God has put His Law within our hearts. The Law had previously been written on stone tablets. People had to look outside themselves to see what to do. Knowing the Law is within us, our outer actions have a better chance of flowing from a unified place of love rather than a place of guilt. Mother Teresa’s intuition was right on. She first loved God in her one hour of meditation which allowed her to bring that love to the needy of Calcutta. She did nothing out of guilt, only love. The inner and the outer—the love of God and the love of neighbour—were one. She knew, in her prayer, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The God she met in prayer was the one and only God she met in the destitute. No outside law, written on tablets or written in the Code of Canon Law, could have taught her that. Only prayer. 

This encounter with this scribe must have been an absolute delight for Jesus. Rarely did he see such openness. Rarely did he encounter someone who put love of God and neighbour before burnt offerings or ritual correctness. What a breath of fresh air this guy must have been to Jesus. No wonder he said of him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Fr. Phil Mulligan


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