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The Word, The Truth

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Homily for Friday of the 20th Week in Ordinary Time, 19 August 2022, Mt 22:34-40

One of the words most commonly mispronounced by lectors is the verb PROPHESY. They often confuse it with the noun PROPHECY, which is spelled with a C, while prophesy is spelled with an S. To prophesy means to speak on God’s behalf, to serve as God’s mouthpiece, or to deliver God’s message. And that message is what we call a prophecy.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is being told by God to prophesy over a huge pile of human bones. It is one of the most cinematic scenes in the Bible. It begins with the prophet having a vision of a seemingly endless pile of human bones, and God asking him CAN THESE BONES COME TO LIFE? Ezekiel’s answer is LORD GOD, YOU ALONE KNOW THAT.

Picture to yourself what happens in stages after he is told to prophesy on these dry bones. First, they rattle and begin to get pieced together into an army of lifeless human skeletons. Next, they develop some flesh and are covered by skin but they remain lifeless. Finally, God breathes on them and they come to life!

Only then does the Lord tell the prophet what he is seeing: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” He explains that this is what the Lord intends to do with his people: he will put his spirit upon them and bring them back to life as a nation. It is supposedly God’s reply to those who have give in to despair and say, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” Not so, with God.

How do we relate this to the Gospel? Jesus is answering the question: which commandment of the law is the greatest? Take note, the question is expecting only one answer; but Jesus gives two. First, he gives the usual answer, as quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5, the passage every Jew is expected to know by heart, and which they call the “Great Shema”—the reminder to love God above all and wholeheatedly. But he adds a second one, which he quotes from Leviticus 19:18, the reminder to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And take note, Jesus puts the second on an equal footing with the first. He says “the second is like the first.” His point is that they become true only when they go together, when they intersect, when they converge as one.

In his first epistle, St John asks a rhetorical question about our tendency to separate them from each other. He says in 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, ‘I love God, ‘ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” In our neighbor whom God has created in his image and likeness, the invisible God is supposed to have made himself visible.

St. Paul is therefore only being true to the teachings of Jesus when he insists that love is our only sure guarantee for eternity. He says: “Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” (1Cor 13,8-10)

I wonder if you noticed that St Paul is using both the noun prophecy and the verb prophesy. He’s suggesting that only love can make us truly prophetic and pronounce God’s Word in a manner that can bring back to life even a mountain of dry bones. No wonder he ends the chapter by disclosing the excellent gift which he earlier advised the Corinthians to aspire for. He says, “The greatest is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)

St John says the proof of that greatest love is no other than Christ himself: “For God so loved the world, he gave us his only Son so that all who believe might not perish, but might have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Only in Christ can the two loves meet: wholehearted love of God and love of neighbor as oneself. The vertical and horizontal—the two lines that intersect in the cross of Christ, which he invites us to carry with him, our only true symbol of eternal love.

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