31 Oct 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 31 October 2021

In the sixth century BC a slave named Aesop told the fable of a Fox who, being hard-hunted and having run a long chase, sought refuge from a Farmer who told the Fox to hide in his barn. Presently the hunters came up, and inquired of the man if he had seen the Fox. ‘No,’ says he, ‘I have not seen him’, but all the while he pointed to the place the Fox was hid. But the hunters failed to take the hint and went on their way. Soon after, the Fox made to depart without a word. Indignant, the Farmer called after him, ‘Ungrateful fellow, have you not the manners to thank your saviour before you go?’ But the Fox, who had seen all through a chink in the barn, rebuked the man: ‘I assure you, had your actions but been agreeable to your words, I should have thanked you. But because they contradicted, I thank you not.’[1]

The concern that thoughts, words and deeds align is a universal and perennial one. The liar thinks one thing but says another; the hypocrite says one thing and does another; the self-deceived identify as one but are in fact another. All three are untrue to God’s law and their own best selves. “Hypocrites!” said Jesus, “You honour me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me… Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees! Like whitewashed tombs you are beautiful on the outside but full of corruption and death within… Take the log out of your own eye before trying to extract a splinter from your brother’s.”[2]

When God commands Israel to love Him in today’s first reading (Dt 6:2-6), He’s not trying to win friends and influence people: loving Him is all gain for us, not for Him. Nor is He telling us to feel a certain way about Him: after all, we can’t easily command our feelings. No, the love God demands of Israel is an act of the will, chosen and lived, not just fleetingly or lackadaisically but heart and soul. But how do we know we’re not just fooling ourselves or others? With no spiritual thermometer, it’s hard to tell.

In our Gospel today Jesus offers us a barometer. To the Old Testament passage about loving God he joins another text about loving neighbour (Mk 12:28-34). It’s two commandments for the price of one, like those TV ads selling a super-pillow or some clever tool with ‘buy one, get one free’. Difference is: there aren’t really two commandments here at all. The second is a sub-clause or even a test of the first. If you love God, certain things follow—in how you relate both to God and your fellows. “If you really love God, you’ll really love your neighbour,” Jesus insists. “Don’t be calling me ‘Lord, Lord’ if you are not going to do as I say, not going to love as I love” (Lk 6:46; cf. 1Jn 2:4-6). “Anyone who says he loves God but hates his brother is a liar,” says John (1Jn 4:20). Like Aesop’s farmer, if we say one thing but do another, we’ve only proven we can’t be trusted.

So like any good teacher, Jesus offers a principle and then explains it. “What’s the greatest commandment? Love God with your all,” Jesus replies. “And what does that look like? Well, loving me looks a lot like loving each other; those who love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength will do likewise to those created in His image. They’ll love one another as I have loved.” (cf. Jn 15:12)

Indeed, so completely does Christ identify with us in our need that He says “When I was hungry, thirsty or naked you provided for me, a stranger, sick or in prison you helped me… What you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” (Mt 25:31-46) It’s not just that those who follow the first commandment will follow the second also: no, because loving God means loving Him wherever we meet Him, including in those around us, then keeping the second commandment is keeping the first. As St Basil the Great put it, “The good works we do out of love of neighbour, God accepts as acts of love for Himself… He who has love for others and a desire for their good is united to God.”[3]

There’s more. When Matthew tells today’s story, Jesus’ interlocutor is a prosecutor out to trick Him (Mt 22:34-40). But in Mark’s version he’s a fan and a genuine seeker. When Jesus answers, the scribe repeats His words, savouring them as in lectio divina, and praising Our Lord as a true teacher. So we have one answer but two very different attitudes. One is genuinely looking for the truth, the other playing games; one is open to the Word of God, the other fails to notice he’s in His very presence. Having good principles but acting badly is inconsistent, even deceptive, but so too are good actions with bad intentions.

In his great encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, St John Paul said we can only judge an action from the perspective of the acting person.[4] Let me give you an example. A doctor removes certain treatments from a dying patient and provides high doses of pain relief. Onlookers suspect she’s engaging in euthanasia, truncating the patient’s life to relieve his suffering. But if pressed for her reasons the doctor might say: “I wasn’t trying to shorten anyone’s life. I was giving my patient medically appropriate care. I removed ineffective treatments and overly burdensome ones. I gave him the appropriate pain relief to keep him comfortable, no more. I wouldn’t dream of shortening someone’s life: but I’ll do everything reasonable to ensure what life they have left is as comfortable and meaningful as possible. That’s what I’m about.” And Jesus might add: that’s precisely what Love commands.

Of course, what we do ‘on the outside’, so to speak, by way of serving or abandoning others, should tell what we’re really thinking; otherwise it’s play-acting or hypocrisy. But it’s also true that what or who we love ‘internally’ will determine what we do and what it really means. We love God, as St John observes, because He loved us first (1 Jn 4:19); having experienced that transforming love, we can act in God-loving, neighbour-loving ways. We learn to love, not just in a measured way, but with the boundlessness of Christ’s love, giving ourselves heart and soul for others. The trustworthy person, according to Aesop, conforms their behaviour to their words. But the holy person, according to Jesus, so harmonises thoughts, words and deeds that their every work of mercy for others is also an act of worship of God, and his every act of divine service itself a work of mercy for others.


My thanks to you all for your participation in our Mass: it’s great to have you back home!

A Bill presently before the NSW Parliament would legalise killing those with grave illnesses or assisting them to kill themselves. While we all sympathise with the desire to relieve people’s suffering and respect their choices, Christians cannot support killing anyone, let alone the most vulnerable. Sometimes in life there are no quick fixes. But out of respect for ourselves and for each other, for God the author of life and for the good of life itself, we do not end suffering by ending the suffering person. We must protect all our citizens and invest ourselves in their better care. So I ask you please to write to your MPs ahead of the euthanasia debate beginning on Friday week. Ideas on how and what can be found at www.noeuthanasia.org.au.

On Saturday 13 November Bishop Robert Barron will launch Sydney’s “Reclaiming Evangelisation” series live online at 11am. I invite you to join me and parishioners from all round Sydney by registering at www.gomakedisciples.org.au. Bishop Barron is today’s leading Catholic evangelist in film and social media and always worth listening to!

And finally, today is All Hallows’ Eve or “Halloween”, part of a three day festival of the dead. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Church Triumphant, the communion of saints in heaven, whom we honour as they inspire and intercede. The next day the memory of the Church Suffering, the souls in purgatory, in the antechamber of heaven, being readied for that happy place, for whom we offer Masses and prayers throughout the month of November. And today we see the Church militant, the communion of saints on earth, making their way to heaven and reminded by these days that death comes to us all and we must prepare now. God bless you and all our dear departed in this month of memories and hope.

[1] http://aesopsbooks.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-fox-and-countryman.html; https://fablesofaesop.com/the-fox-and-the-woodcutter.html

[2] Mt 7:5; 15:7-9; 23:27-28; cf. Jas 1:22; 2:14-17 etc.

[3] St. Basil of Caesarea, Asceticon, Longer Responses 3; see B. Koubetch, “the Word of God in the life and works of St Basil: God’s commandments” https://osbmcommission.wordpress.com/list-of-conferences/the-word-of-god-in-the-life-and-works-of-st-basil/; A. Holmes, A life Pleasing to God: the Spirituality of the Rules of St. Basil (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000), 54-65; S. Batruch, Models of Christian life in the Works of St Basil the Great (Lviv: Svichado, 2007), 96.

[4] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor: Encyclical on the Church’s Moral Teaching (1993), 78

A warm welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. With lockdown behind us we give thanks to Almighty God that we can gather again for Mass, but we continue to pray for an end to the pandemic. To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins repenting of them and asking God for mercy in prayer and song.