Torch provides a new Catholic homily each week written specially for this web site by Dominican friars, and read by followers worldwide. Read more.

The Debt of Love

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Harries shows that the love of Christ has nothing to do with wishy-washyness.

St Paul tells the early Christians in Rome to avoid getting into debt. Sensible advice we might think in any age, though mortgages and student loans would be difficult to avoid for many young (and not so young) people in Britain today.

But St Paul makes an exception, the debt of mutual love. He encourages the Christians in Rome to love each other, for that way they fulfil the law. Here St Paul picks up and reiterates one of the great innovations of Jesus' teaching -- to love God and to love our neighbour as oneself.

The law of the Old Testament, as we call it, the Torah, as the Jewish community call it, is long, all 613 commandments of it. But, and this seems to have been one of the big questions in Jesus' time, is it all equally important?

Is the prohibition on fashionable beard trims (Leviticus 19:27) really as important as the prohibition on defrauding our neighbours (Leviticus 19:13)? Is not ploughing with a ox and donkey yoked together -- not perhaps the most obvious of agricultural practices -- (Deuteronomy 22:10) - really on the same scale of importance as Deuteronomy 24:7 which decrees putting to death a kidnapper who sells a fellow Israelite into slavery?

Jesus answered this big and apparently much discussed question. He taught that the law could be summed up in loving God and loving our neighbour as oneself.

St Paul clearly knew this and argues here in his letter to the Romans that the commandments of old, not committing adultery, not killing, not coveting, are all covered by this one new commandment. This allowed St Paul and the early Christian communities to accept the insight that the various commandments of the Torah are not all equally important.

Indeed, some of them may have become superfluous. It also allows the Christian community to develop new insights into God's law: for example by eventually seeing that slavery itself is wrong, and not just kidnapping and then selling someone into slavery.

In recent decades, capital punishment is an issue that has been a topic of Christian reflection. There is quite a lot of capital punishment in the Old Testament, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that capital punishment is rarely, if ever, absolutely necessary these days.

Sometimes people understand and dismiss Christianity as primarily a moral code, a list of do's and don'ts. The media often seems to delight in this misunderstanding, especially when there is a debate involving sexual ethics. Employment practices such as the London campaign to persuade employers to pay a living wage, don't attract the same media interest.

In contrast to this attempt to reduce Christianity to a moral code, I suggest that Christianity is primarily about love, love of God and love of neighbour.

St Paul encourages the Roman Christians to love their neighbours. They will do this differently. Some will eat meat and some will be vegetarians by choice. Some will fast, others won't. Some will be strong in faith, others will have failings. In modern terms, there will be different patterns of life, diverse spiritualities and many tensions within the community.

But they are united in one church as all have put on the Lord Jesus Christ and all are called to a common pilgrim way of love of God and love of neighbour.

All this sounds wonderful. Today's gospel passage gives us a warning. Some patterns of behaviour are wrong and cannot be tolerated within the community. If, after repeated warning, someone persists in some serious wrong, then they are to be treated like a pagan or a tax-collector -- in other words, they are no longer to be treated as one of the Christian community. Such a person has failed in some serious way to love their neighbour, and has failed to repent.

The gospel does not give us a comprehensive list of such serious wrongs. Each generation will reflect differently but sins of violence against others, and the systematic exploiting of other people will surely feature. So will sins of deliberately neglecting the needs of others for food, shelter or care. These are total failures to love our neighbour as oneself.

In contrast let us orientate our life to love of God and love of neighbour, with the help of God's grace.



Ezekiel 33:7-9
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20


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