A Warning

The following was a homily given at today’s noon Mass at Mission Santa Clara 
Every once in a while, there is a Gospel passage that seems to speak directly to our times, almost as if it could have been written yesterday. That is true of today’s Gospel (Matthew 7:15–20), an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus gives clear warning that we can easily be swayed by people who promise much but deliver little. The religious huckster, the political bully, the skillful liar. They lure, cajole and sell, but in the end betray the souls of those who buy their goods. “You will know them by their fruits,” he says, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Using another metaphor, he says: “Beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing!”

Sermon on the Mount, Stanford Memorial Church (façade)

In Matthew, Jesus is the antithesis of such frauds. Jesus is represented here as the New Moses. The Old Moses gave us the Commandments; the New Moses gives us the Beatitudes, and a condensation of the entire Law to the simple twofold maxim of loving God with all one’s being (first given by Moses in the shema—Deut 6:5), and to love our neighbor as ourselves (preached in some form by all the prophets). Jesus takes seriously what Moses tried to teach in the first place: that the point of religion is not the Law or obedience to it (much less to civil law—a gross misreading of Romans 13!), but rather subordination of everything to the “law of love.” For the Old Moses, as well as the New Moses, the Law is but an expression of something deeper: a sacred bond between God and God’s people: the Covenant.

The Covenant was was a social bond among the people arising from a serious sense of God’s reality. And this bond meant certain obligations of social and personal integrity: especially, as Jesus reminds us in the Beatitudes: care for the humble, the homeless, the suffering, the poor. For the prophets, it was spelled out in care for children without parents, for abused women, and for refugees arriving at the city gates. Deuteronomy goes even further: “God himself defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (10:18). For Jesus and the prophets, failure to attend the least among us would amount to repudiation of the Covenant, and the breaking of sacred bonds among us.
Based on the past experience of Israel, Jesus warns that it could happen again: wolves appearing in the guise of sheep’s clothing, out for themselves. The signs would come in the ways the Covenant had been forgotten before: political persecution of refugees, of the poor, of those who are need of clothing or shelter or food or bodily care. It would come in the form of hucksters confirming people in their selfishness, but not the self-sacrifice of love. It would come in a forgetting of God altogether by society as a whole.
This can happen to societies; it can happen to us. At a time when refugee babies are being torn from the arms of their mothers; at a time when new detention camps are being set up in America, even at this very moment as we worship here; at a time when we find ourselves driven apart into irreconcilable camps of mutual alienation, even in the church, we should be warned.

There is hope, revealed in the Second Book of Kings (ch. 20), which we also heard today. The law of love can be rediscovered, as if it were a new thing, and the Covenant can be restored, itself made new. Jesus called this hope the Reign of God. We are here in this church as witnesses to hope in that Reign, that one day we will all wake up and see ourselves for what we’ve become and yearn for the law of love that was the dream of Jesus. Looking around our world, our country, our communities, it is clear that there is much harm to be undone, much work yet to be done. The law of love can move us forward.

For those interested in helping people at the border, I’d recommend contributing to the Jesuit-sponsored Kino Border Initiative: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org.  For a yet more global perspective on immigration and refugee issues, see Jesuit Refugee Service: http://en.jrs.net.  

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