I love reading, and like a lot of readers whose favorite books have been made into movies, have generally found the movie adaptation disappointing, bringing out only a small fraction of the character development that a great author can achieve. There are some exceptions, though, and one area in which the cinema can really stir us is in the area of the law. To Kill a Mockingbird is a fantastic book, and Gregory Peck was able to hit all of the right notes in which Atticus Finch brings out the humanity of people caught up in the injustice of a postwar South struggling to cope under new scrutiny of its institutional racism. Henry Fonda, in Twelve Angry Men, can demonstrate the moral convictions of a good man who insists that his fellow jurors very seriously review the evidence which could result in an innocent young man being put to death. Thomas More, our own Catholic saint in the movie A Man for All Seasons, is eloquent in his love of the law, but only so far as it is consistent with the law of God. And, while we love to see a movie in which the good guy wins, we also jeer at the bad guys, who uses the law to do evil things or to escape just punishment after they do wrong.
Saint Paul understands that the law, in the hands of a skilled speaker, can be used for good or for evil. The second reading, taken from the middle passage of the thirteenth chapter, is his lesson to the Christian congregation in Rome, immediately follows a passage where Paul instructs them to obey the civil authorities, and moreover to pay their taxes and to respect governmental officials whenever called upon to do so. He is writing to the Romans before the Christian persecutions began, so obedience to the civil authorities made sense, since it would allow the small Christian group to be left alone in a pagan empire. In the verses which follow, which we read today, Paul holds Christians, and all of us, to a still higher standard than the law: love of God and love of neighbor. Paul wrote some of the most beautiful and moving descriptions of love in all of literature, and he knows that a true love of the heart is much more than a mechanical compliance civil laws and regulations or, as he told the Galatians, blind observance of religious laws such as circumcision or Jewish dietary rules.
This of course should be obvious. Both civil law as well as the Ten Commandments tell us to not commit murder, but who here thinks that on judgment day when asked if we loved our neighbors as ourselves we’ll be able to pass the test by replying, “I didn’t kill them, did I?” No, our Christian mandate goes well beyond this. This is a passive compliance, and not an active engagement required of a disciple of Christ.
The Gospel today is one of many in the New Testament where Christ lays out for his disciples ways that they must display the love of neighbor. This passage, for trivia buffs, is the only time when Jesus gave a step-by-step procedure for handling a life situation. Why here? Christ knows the propensity of human beings to jump to His final step and condemn someone they disagree with or has caused them pain. He requires first every chance at reconciliation. The law cannot force reconciliation, only our heart can do so.
The love which Christ expects of us and that Paul describes is the Greek agape. This is not a feeling which we undergo when we really like something or someone, although that can be a small part of it. It is not best wishes for someone, an “I’ve got my fingers crossed for you.” No, perfect love is doing whatever it takes to help a person in need. If prayer and finger-crossing are all that you can do, then okay, that’s love, but we can usually do much more than this when we see our neighbor is hurting. There is no law that can be written that can make anyone do this. Laws are a base set of standards to which an authority compels compliance through coercion. Love must be freely given, an act of free will which sincerely attempts to understand another and his or her needs, sees our neighbor to be like ourselves, beloved by God and deserving of our love. Or as Atticus Finch tells us, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...” [Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: The 40th Anniversary Edition, New York: HarperCollins, 1999, p. 33].
This week, Wednesday, September 9, the Church celebrates the feast day of Saint Peter Claver. He was a Seventeenth Century Jesuit missionary priest who became the patron saint of Father Oscar’s Republic of Colombia, as well as the patron saint of slaves and ministry to African Americans. He baptized around 300,000 people in New Granada, what is modern day Colombia, and heard the confessions of over 5,000 slaves each year. He shunned the rich planters and slave owners and lived with the slaves. He ministered to newly arrived slaves who were in horrific condition after their sea voyage from Africa. He spoke up for their welfare in addition to preaching the Word of God. Although born to a well-to-do family in Spain, he felt called by God to be the slave of the slaves, and wrote, "I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave" [Joseph F. X. Sladky, “St. Peter Claver: Slave of the Slaves Forever,” Crisis Magazine, September 8, 2014. https://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/st-peter-claver-slave-slaves-forever].
Saint Peter Claver is the perfect example of what the call to true Christian love is about. It is not a passive love, in which we do no harm. It is an active love, where we do what is right for others in need, even if they have hurt us. It is sad to see on the news every day many Americans, many of whom consider themselves to be Christians, not truly following their Christian mandate, but instead engaging in hateful speech and name-calling. We must forcefully advocate for reconciliation, to have the extremes on both sides try to understand the position of the other, and seek ways to deescalate situations instead of amplifying them. If the world sees us as foolish, to use the word that Saint Paul does, for not bending our Christian values of love of God and neighbor to engage in political sport or culture war, then so be it, for we answer to a higher authority. This takes tremendous courage, a courage which Jesus showed when He took up the cross, and now it is our turn. It was just last Sunday in the Gospel that Jesus instructed his followers, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” [Mt 16:24]. Once again, I quote Atticus Finch, who told his son Jem, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what" [Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: The 40th Anniversary Edition, New York: HarperCollins, 1999, p. 128].