Homily From the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

There are some pretty strange laws in Missouri.  And I’m not saying that as a political statement or talking about laws that I may not agree with – there are objectively some strange laws in Missouri!  Did you know that it is illegal for milkmen to run while on duty?  Or that in Columbia, clotheslines are banned, but clothes may be draped over fences?  In University City, it is illegal to own a PVC pipe.  In St. Louis, it is illegal to sit on a curb of any city street and drink beer from a bucket, but that’s eased up a bit in Natchez, where it is only unlawful to provide intoxicants to elephants.  Like I said, there are some strange laws.  Probably a lot of them have context that makes them a little more sensible.  For example, the PVC pipe law in U-City has to do with drug paraphernalia, and maybe in Natchez, they’ve had horrible elephant accidents in the past.  But how would you know these things unless you went to Jefferson City and looked them up in some archive?

It’s possible to think of God’s law in the same way – remote, distant, foreign – but today, the lesson we have to learn is that God’s law is simple.  We are to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as ourselves, and we will live.  It’s a simple lesson within everyone’s reach, even the Samaritan in the parable today, who was thought of as very low class and uncivilized at the time of Jesus.  This commandment of love summarizes the Gospel, summarizes the teaching of Jesus, and summarizes the meaning of life.  It is utter simplicity.

"Le Bon Samaritain" by Aimé Morot
“Le Bon Samaritain” by Aimé Morot

But life is complicated, as we all know, and we like to extend those complications into the law of God.  And so we ask that question of Jesus – who is my neighbor?  We want clarifications and qualifications.  One of the most dangerous things we can fall into is relativism.  We can begin to think that God’s law is so abstract and incapable of covering our situation that because of that, my way of treating others is just as good and just as valid as anyone else’s.  Morality becomes something abstract and more individualized.  It seems strange, but the relativist would be inclined to thank the Samaritan for doing what he did to help that beaten man on the road, but that such action depends on the individual.  When we see how truth and morality seem to drift away and disappear, we can understand why Pope Benedict XVI said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”  It’s that selfishness within us that asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

The thing about the law of God is that it’s not abstract – it’s simple and accessible to all.  Like the first reading says, it’s not something written in the sky or across some foreign land, or buried in a stack of paper in an archive in Jefferson City.  The law of God is written on our hearts, even from the moment of our conception.  Jesus gives us this parable to explain what he’s talking about, and he’s given us further lessons to understand what this means: the words and examples of a thousand saints, the teaching of the Church from the Roman Empire to Vatican II to today, the little nudgings of our consciences, and even the day to day actions of our Holy Father, who even recently invited 200 homeless people to dine in the Vatican.  It’s pretty clear what we have to do.  But we still complicate it and find it hard to learn.  We have to ask ourselves, “What holds us back from deciding once and for all to make Christ’s standard our own?”

There are a million different complicated self-help lessons that will teach us how to live good lives, be successful, and make people like us.  But do me a favor and forget all of those things for a moment and concentrate on one phrase from the Gospel: “Go and do likewise.”  If we can just be like the Good Samaritan in the Gospel, then we will live.  There are two big ways that we can do that.  The first is by having the right intention.  We find ourselves really busy all day with responsibilities and jobs, but it’s a good thing to remember that many of these things are themselves “Good Samaritan” activities.  Moms and dads, you spend all day cleaning up after people and making sure the kids get to where they need to be.  Workers and professionals, you spend 8 to 10 hours every day offering some service to another person who needs it, whether it be as a pharmacist, an insurance agent, a nurse, a web designer, or whatever.  Kids and teens, you guys spend your free time away from school cutting the grass and doing chores.  Retired grandmas and grandpas, you volunteer for things and babysit constantly.  All of these things are normal responsibilities to us, and maybe a little tedious, but when we see them from the perspective of the Good Samaritan, offering love and care to those in need of it, they take on that true Christ-like meaning.  The second thing we can do to be like the Good Samaritan this week is to choose right here and now that when we run into someone who needs us this week, we will lend them a hand.  It could be a friend, it could be someone you’ve never met.  It could be something material that they need, or it could be just a few prayers.  Let’s promise that we won’t let that law become abstract in our hearts and just walk right along by that needy person.  Let us pray that strengthened by this Holy Communion that we will soon receive, we will follow Christ’s call to “Go, and do likewise.”

The Holy Apostles: St. Matthew

Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican
Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican

Today we come to one of the better known apostles, St. Matthew, also known as Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.  St. Matthew was known primarily for being a tax collector, and it was while he was sitting at his post in Capernaum when Jesus called him.  It’s actually more accurate for us to think of Matthew as a “publican”, an official position in the Roman Empire.  Publicans were despised by their fellow Jews because their job meant that they collaborated with the occupying Romans.  Publicans were public contractors, overseeing public building projects and other goings-on.  But yes, they were mostly known for collecting taxes.

Being a publican was very profitable.  Taxes in the Empire didn’t work as they do today, but instead, the Roman officials approximated how much tax a province could handle, and the publican would manage the payment.  The sum paid to Rome was actually treated as a loan, and the publicans would receive interest on that payment in the end.  Also, the publican kept any excess tax collected beyond the requested sum, so there was extra incentive for the publican to collect.  You can imagine why it was considered a rather greedy profession.

The fact that St. Matthew turned away from an incredibly profitable life as a publican to follow Jesus makes St. Matthew’s conversion all the more powerful.  He even held a “going away party” of sorts, inviting all of his friends – who were also publicans, because everyone else hated him.  But Jesus clearly gives his reasons for calling Matthew as an apostle: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Even as a sinner, St. Matthew was empowered by Christ to do wonderful things.  He became an eyewitness to the Resurrection, and afterward, spent his time serving the communities of Palestine.  Perhaps he was making amends for his previous life, but he selflessly served his Hebrew brothers and sisters until he moved elsewhere.  Where exactly he went, we don’t know.  Some sources mention Persia, others Macedonia, and others Syria.  Almost all mention that he preached in Ethiopia…but not that Ethiopia.  The Ethiopia Matthew went to was south of the Caspian Sea, near Armenia.  I guess they didn’t know the name “Ethiopia” was already taken!

The tradition of the Church is that Matthew was martyred like so many of his apostle brothers, but there is disagreement as to how or where.  Whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded, suffice to say that it wasn’t pretty, but he did it to give witness to Christ.  Today, what are believed to be his remains rest in the Cathedral of Salerno, Italy.

St. Matthew doesn’t seem to have as many fancy stories as the other apostles, but his primary contribution as an evangelist was authoring the Gospel bearing his name.  It was written in Aramaic, the language of his people, and then translated later into Greek.  We are not exactly sure when it was written (there were no copyright pages then), but probably very early, possibly even 10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus!

The transformation of Matthew from a man of selfishness and greed to a man of generous and loving service is a great example for us today.  It’s easy for us to get down on ourselves for our weaknesses, believing that we are not good enough for God, but like St. Matthew, Christ calls us to follow him, especially as sinners.  Let us continue to pray that we would embrace that call to live and spread the Gospel, just as St. Matthew did!