Jewish Law, the Reformation, and Lady Gaga: A Pretty Long Homily

Feature Image: “Moses with the Ten Commandments” – Rembrandt

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 29 October 2017
St. Mary Immaculate – Plainfield, IL
Ex 20:22-26; 1 Thess 1:5C-10; Mt 22:34-40


This Tuesday is Halloween, a truly scary day.
I am known by most of my friends
as the Scrooge of Halloween;
I am glad to live at the seminary where there will be no one knocking on my door.

It is not a scary day only because of the number of new cavities that will come into existence.
It is also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther
nailing his 95 Theses to door of the Wittenburg Cathedral,
effectively beginning what we know now as “the Reformation.”

In the coming days, I’m sure you will hear on the news and in the line at Peter Rubi
a lot of chatter about ways different Christians churches and communities

are “celebrating” the reformation.

Please, do not celebrate the reformation.


Wasn’t it the end of that mean, patriarchal, backwards, ignorant, medieval, Roman Church
as I learned in my AP European History class?

Lol no, considering that you’re sitting inside of one of those supposedly mean, supposedly patriarchal, supposedly backwards, supposedly ignorant Roman Churches.

Please don’t celebrate the Reformation because it caused the most serious division to date
in the body of Christ whose hallmark, according to the words of Jesus’ own mouth,
is unity.

I’ve said before that when I was in the Holy Land
a lot of Muslims told us that one the chief ways the know Christianity cannot be true
is because there are so many factions and divisions within,
each claiming to have discovered the Truth.

Our division discredits us, and hampers our ability to preach the Gospel and to save the world.

There were even divisions within the reformation movement.
Luther is the most famous reformer, of course,
but what about Zwingli and Henry VIII and Calvin?

Calvin’s home base of Geneva, Switzerland was Protestant before he got there,
but it was Calvin who made the city the Protestant stronghold it has become.

His belief in pre-destination, that God has chosen ahead of time who is saved and who isn’t,
led to his putting into place a series of laws aimed at helping the “saved”
to live lives worthy of their calling,
and to help the “damned” remain under control,
even as they head toward the inevitable, eternal fire.

The laws were ridiculous.
There are records that 2 peasants were arrested for selling cabbages in the marketplace for “suspiciously low” prices.
Someone was caught selling gunpowder to a Catholic, and thus was banished from the city.
A married couple was also banished from the city for having an “incurably riotous household.”
Would anybody here describe their household as “incurably riotous”?
When Fr. Pat has too much ginger ale, I would say our rectory could be described
as “incurably riotous”.

Fr. Pat has actually forbidden me from drinking Stella Artois in his presence
due to a time when I myself became “incurably riotous” while we were out to eat.

Such is life.

The point is that Geneva was probably a very difficult place to live,
especially if you didn’t understand or agree with the laws or the lawmakers.
This was also the case in Israel at the time of Jesus.

The Pharisees were the righteous followers of the law,
even though they themselves were often corrupt and one-sided in their duties.
Anyone who considered themselves “truly Jewish” would have lived in strict obedience
to the laws set out in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.

How many laws were there? Any guesses? 

613! 613 laws that every person was responsible for knowing and following.

Some of the laws, like the 10 Commandments, are reasonable and help us lead a holy life.

Some of the laws, on the other hand, took the Jewish concern
for ritual purity in temple worship a little too far.

Rule 186: Do not eat worms found in fruit on the ground.
Rule 280: Do not work the land every seventh year.

Rule 283: Do not gather grapes that grow wild that year in the normal way.

Rules 307, 308, 309: Prepare the anointing oil, do not reproduce the anointing oil, do not anoint with the anointing oil.

Rule 612, one that will make all the married women here very happy: A man may not sell his wife into slavery.

Some of the laws make a lot of sense, but some (like the ones dealing with the anointing oil) are very strange.

So we understand why the pharisee’s thought themselves to be clever
when testing Jesus in the gospel today:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Certainly, his pick of most important law would provide useful information
in condemning Jesus’ teaching.

Would it be one of the laws about marriage? Ritual purity? Sacrifice? Temple worship? Tithing?

Jesus presumably shocks them by picking not one but two laws
that were probably taken for granted by most Jews:
Rule 4: To love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength
and combination of Rules 12-19
which state:
Cleave to those who know God; Love Jews; Love converts; Don’t hate fellow Jews; reprove the sinner; do not embarrass others or oppress the weak, not to seek revenge or hold a grudge.

In other words, love your neighbor!

Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. Simple, right?
Not only are these the two most important laws,
Jesus takes this even farther by saying that
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

In other words,
everything they’ve ever known and believed about God, salvation, faith, culture, economy, worship, family life, raising children, education, eating and drinking, and even leisure

depends on these two commandments,
which can be summed up with one word: Love.

Not “sacrifice”, not “authority”, not “punishment”;

But love.

The Greek word used by Matthew in the gospel is “kremannumi”
which is translated best not as “depends” but “hangs.”
The whole law and the prophets, everything we believe, hangs on these two commandments.

In other words, nothing can bear the burden of the law except love.

Nothing else taught in the law makes any sense
unless it flows from the love of the other,
which has its origin in the love of God.

What happens when we put a law or rule above love of our neighbor and of God?

A couple of years ago you may have seen on Facebook or Instagram
a post from Lady Gaga describing her experience at Sunday Mass
with a priest who she’d known since her childhood.
She wrote a long post about how his homily that day had really spoken to her,
and how much she valued the experience of coming to Mass and receiving the Eucharist.

Lady Gaga. Posting publicly about her love for Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
Saying that she loves her parish priest, that his homilies move her.


How did the Catholic internet respond?

Some charitable comments, of course, being exciting about her faith.

The overwhelming majority of comments, however,
were harsh and condemning.

How dare Lady Gaga receive the Eucharist! After what she sings about!
Look at her lifestyle! There’s no way she’s in a state of grace!

That priest should be suspended by giving her communion!

Church, we let Lady Gaga down!
We let all the people who are looking for refuge
and who, because of Gaga’s post, might have found it in the Church –

We let them down, too.

That was a bad move on our part.

We put the law above love and the whole thing fell apart.

A lot of people accuse the Catholic Church of being too “law focused”,
and that Catholicism is just about following a bunch of rules.
So if love is the goal, and love is the means of achieving the goal,
do we even need a law? All we have to do is be nice and love, right?

Anybody in here play baseball?

There is a certain way to play baseball.
A certain way to stand, to hold the bat, to swing;
If you want to be a successful player, it’s best to play by the rules.

In other words, the rules of the game make me free to be a good player.

The whole law of the Church, and everything it contains –

The moral precepts, the sacraments, the life of grace, the growth in virtue, the coming to Mass,

The life of prayer and study, everything –

These are like bumpers on the bowling lane of life.
We’re all terrible bowlers, but we are capable of becoming the best.
Sure, you can ask them to put the bumpers down,
but until you learn what you’re doing, you’ll throw gutter balls every time.

The Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church contains far more than 613 laws.

In fact, it contains 1,752 canons which govern the life of the Church and her faithful.

But what does this whole set of law hang on?

The very last canon in the code,
Canon 1752 states that in all cases,
“the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law of the Church,
is to be kept before one’s eyes.”

The law is not meant to be a burden to us,
and when everything, the whole law and the prophets,
hangs on our love for God (and his love for us!)
and through this love, the love we have for one another,
the law becomes life-giving for us.
We are capable of profound, inexpressible goodness;
as beloved sons and daughters of God who is Father and Lord of Life,
we are full of grace and goodness and truth.

The reformers did not believe this.
Luther believed that humanity lost all of its capacity
for choosing the good, for loving as a result of Original Sin.

Henry VIII hated the law which prevented his divorce.
It prevented his divorce because the Law of God
does not care about your heir or the succession of your dynasty;
it cares about the salvation of souls.

Calvin, likewise, believed man was not capable of doing anything good on his own.
No one’s will could ever be purified enough to choose to love.
Salvation has nothing to do with any work or omission of ours;
those who live grace-filled lives only do so because they were predestined for heaven;

Human freedom is totally out.

The reformers let the law become the measure of their ability to love.
Their love of God, of neighbor, and of themselves hung on the whole law and the prophets.

We see the destruction this caused to the body of Christ.

In the same way, anytime we put the law above the person who is right in front of us
we do a great disservice to the unity and vitality of the body of Christ.

This doesn’t mean we ignore the law. But why must it always be either
love and mercy or the law,
when the law is one of love and mercy?
The great good that comes from the following of the law is the salvation of our souls.

Salvation of souls means life forever in the new age with God.
It means union, infinite togetherness with Christ in God forever.

Infinite togetherness begins with finite togetherness,
with unity here and now with those around us,
whether we like them very much or not.

Do not rejoice on Tuesday over the Reformation.

It is indeed a scary thing.

Perhaps the scariest thing about it is that it has convinced millions of people
that they are irreversibly flawed, incapable of choosing goodness and love.

Do not be afraid of the law; it is not a burden, but a path to freedom.
Freedom from sin, freedom for love of God and neighbor, freedom to see the fullness of that love come wonderfully alive in our hearts and in this community.

“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

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