Loving Our Neighbors As Much As We Love God
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
October 30, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on October 29, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; and Matthew 22:34-40.

In the centuries before Jesus’ birth, many rabbis attempted to distill the 613 laws of the Torah down to a few words. Jesus’ answer today is not very different from other well-respected rabbis. If Jesus says anything new, it’s that he explicitly raises “love of neighbor” to the same level of importance as “love of God.”

Our first reading is the first of many portions of the Law and the Prophets that clearly state our responsibility to care for aliens, widows, and orphans. Interestingly, these categories of people were defined more broadly by the ancient Israelites than we define them today. While many widows in Israel were destitute, others held some sort of financial power. An orphan was any child in Israelite society without a father. The alien was anyone living in Israel without close relatives or without a claim of land.  

Today is a day to wrestle with hard questions: 

  • Who is our neighbor?  
  • Have we done all that God expects us to do for them?  

Let us ask God for mercy in the times that we’ve fallen short of the mark. 

The year was 1998. One day at my engineering job, we talked about an annoying television ad that was running ad nauseum. It was for a financial institution that made loans to people with bad credit. The spokesman would look straight into the camera with an oily smile, saying, “When your bank says ‘no,’ [our bank] says ‘yes.’ ” One of my colleagues said what we were all thinking: “That guy is so sleazy! You can tell that he’s preying on people who can’t afford to take these loans.”  

It was clear to us what was going on, and to many other people who saw this commercial, but did any of us do anything about it? How could it possibly affect us? I think you all know what happened ten years later – the worldwide financial system had its worst meltdown since the Great Depression. The roots of the so-called “Great Recession” are complicated, but one of the contributing factors was toxic subprime mortgages – the very thing that the television commercial had been peddling ten years before. By not protecting our neighbors lured by predatory lending, millions – if not billions – of people were affected by a much larger crisis.

We live in a world where we are increasingly interconnected to one another. Who are our neighbors today? Who are the people who would meet the criteria of alien, widow, and orphan as defined by the ancient Israelites? Abraham the Patriarch was an immigrant in a strange land, like many people today in various circumstances in different parts of the world. The Holy Family fled Bethlehem in fear of safety, similar to children currently fleeing gang violence in parts of Central America. Jesus faced a death sentence, like the 233 people in Texas sitting on death row. Canaanites were “aliens” in ancient Israel in circumstances similar to Native Americans in the United States today. Although the Blessed Virgin Mary’s situation was unique, hundreds of thousands of unwed women in this country face unexpected pregnancies. The aristocrats of Judah were exiled in Babylon, as the Rohingya are currently being forced into Bangladesh. 

How well do we love our neighbors from around the world? I propose two quick tests. First, can we locate Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Honduras on a world map? In 2016, more residents served by the Austin charity, Casa Marianella and Posada Esperanza, came from these four countries than from almost anywhere else in the world. Second, in our internet browsing, how many times have we clicked on the “share” button to pass on a scathing criticism of a politician, compared to how often we’ve clicked on the “donate” button for a charitable organization? 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins his public ministry by declaring, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and he cautions in his final teaching before his passion, death, and resurrection, “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” If we love God with our whole hearts, we will surely try to bring the poor into the Kingdom of God. 

Back in 2003, the bishops of the United States and Mexico jointly issued a document called Strangers No Longer. They released an updated document four years ago. While the Church agrees that the United States has an obligation to secure its borders, it points out that the 10-fold funding increase in the “enforcement-only approach [to immigration reform] has… not worked.” Please note that the bishops have made these criticisms against the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. The bishops continue to call for immigration enforcement to be carried out with compassion: to deport only those people engaged in dangerous activities, to keep families united whenever possible, and to not use excessive force on the most vulnerable.

It’s easy for critics to say that the Church is naïve about the legal complications of immigration and refugee policy… but such a criticism is itself naïve. The Church has hundreds of thousands of people around the world ministering to the 65 million people who are refugees and exiles today. We know the situation better than many of those who issue blanket criticisms of immigrants and immigration policy.

What is the key to protecting the alien, the widow, and the orphan from oppression? To understand that they are our neighbors. And most of us don’t consider people to truly be our neighbors until we know their personal stories. 

As humans, we are limited in what we can do. But if we do nothing, who will love our neighbors? Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. You are his hands. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on the world.”