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30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

I’m sure you’ve found there are times when people want to challenge your

Catholic faith. And sometimes, it seems people are queuing up to find some

question or some difficulty they can use to catch you out. Some of the

Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in America used to use this to good effect,

running something called “Stump the Priest”, as a way of getting teenagers to

engage with religious matters and give the Catholic faith some thought. But if

we have been there, then Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has been there

first. Last week it was the disciples of the Pharisees and also the Herodians

who had a go at Him. This week it’s the Pharisees, although we’ve skipped the

section when the Sadducees have a try. They must have thought they had a

great question for Him this time. How’s He going to get out of this one?

“Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” So first, just a bit

of background.

By “the Law” they don’t mean the law of the Roman Empire. Back then the

New Testament hadn’t been written, and the Scriptures were what are known

today as either the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. They divided

them, in simple terms, into two sections: The Law and The Prophets. The Law

was the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and

Deuteronomy. If you go looking through all those and have a good bit of time,

you can find there are six hundred and thirteen different commandments,

including the Ten Commandments. So, Jesus, which is the greatest

commandment of the Law? Number 55? Number 78? How about 464? I

rather like number 602. But my friend here settles for 298. Which do you

think is the most important?

In the first reading, we can see an example of the detail some of the 613

precepts go into. So, even if we had to choose from the first reading alone,

which is the most important? The first one, about not molesting the stranger

(modern-day application: looking after immigrants, asylum seekers etc.)?

What about the second one, about not crippling the poor by first seeming to do

them a good turn by lending them some money, and then charging stupid rates

of interest? Loan sharks have been around for a good long while. You could

say the trade is ancient. Or what about the third option, about giving back

another’s cloak before sunset? In days before central heating, it could get

pretty cold at night, even in the Middle East. So, only another 610 precepts to

look at. Which is the most important? A great way to start an argument.

So Our Lord uses a technique here which you can use yourselves too: He

reframes the argument and points out, indirectly, their problem (or maybe one

of their problems): they can’t see the wood for the trees. They are so bogged

down in the details that they can’t see the overall picture. But the over-arching

answer to your question is this: first, love the Lord you God with all your

heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and secondly, love your

neighbour as yourself. Everything else is an explanation of those two main


Fast forward to the twentieth century, and things go wrong the opposite way

round. Whilst in the first half of the century, people learnt their faith in detail,

next people started saying that all you need to know is that God loves you, and

you have to love God and neighbour. Don’t worry about all the rest. Weren’t

the seventies great? The Catholic faith is both ... and, not either ... or. All the

parts need to be there in the jigsaw puzzle, not just the ones at the edge, nor just

the ones in the middle. I think, in terms of passing on the faith, the pendulum

has swung back now more to the centre again, but the Church is still in a bit of

a mess.

Sometimes, when people ask us awkward questions, it can take us back. At

other times, we can be surprised at the solutions that suddenly occur to us.

Some time ago, someone asked me about the concept of blasphemy, thinking it

was all rather silly. In some Muslim countries, it is taken very seriously, and

also abused. An allegation is made that someone disrespected the Koran or the

Muslim prophet Muhammad, and a mob forms, asking, not very politely, for

the alleged perpetrator to be put to death. We don’t have that kind of strict

punishment against blasphemy in the Catholic faith, but the concept is still

there, that we should respect God, the saints, and holy places. So what’s its

modern relevance? Or is it absurd in a supposedly secular society? Well, we

do have in law the concept of respect for others, and if someone writes books

telling serious lies about someone, then it can end up in court. So in the same

way, as Catholics, we want our faith to be treated with respect, and God and

Our Lady too. Of course, later on, Our Lord is put to death for blasphemy, for

claiming to be God.

Which goes to show: you can try to do the best you can to explain the Catholic

faith, but you won’t always succeed. As they say up north, “there’s nowt as

queer as folk”. But we are down south, and here, a certain Fr Traill, who was

himself a convert, overcame opposition to the Catholic faith, and this church is

the end product of what he began. So maybe the advice from Fletch in

Porridge is more apt, modifying slightly what he said: don’t let the so-and-so’s

get you down!

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