31st Sunday of Ordinary Times

“You who are on the road must have a code you can live by.” So wrote Neil Young, the singer-songwriter back in the 1970s. Young was pointing out the tendency for most people to see the need to develop a guiding principle for their behavior. This principle is a fundamental truth that serves as a ground rule or foundational premise for our actions. It governs our life. Like the laws of nature, it is always true.

The most reflective of us make a conscious effort to establish such a guideline for our lives. We give it some thought and contemplation. The vast majority of humans, though, develop their code for life unconsciously from the influences they experience around them. Our religious faith and culture have a significant impact on fostering our life plan. Our environment and examples from other people influence the formulation of our life plan too.

For some of us, a wise and insightful influence taught it to us. It comes from a person we recognize as having outstanding character. They are people who are wise and insightful. They seem to have a remarkable ability to evaluate life’s challenges and handle them with skill.

Moses, the great patriarch, was such a person, and he recognized the need to develop a guiding principle for the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. He had convinced Egypt’s Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery, and he guided them for forty years as they wandered in the desert. When the Israelites had grown thirsty and hungry, Moses prayed to God to provide for the people’s needs. He had listened as God conveyed the Ten Commandments and the Law. Moses interceded for the rebellious Israelites with God when they inflamed God’s anger. Moses was the obvious person to instruct the people and offer them a guiding principle before entering a new land.

In today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites stand poised to enter the Land of Milk and Honey. They are on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land after forty years of nomadic wandering in the desert. Moses, however, is not to join them there. God has revealed Moses will not lead the Israelites to their new home. He will die before that happens. So, here, Moses shares with the people what must be their guiding principle as they begin a new life in a new land.

He tells them:

“Hear. O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!

Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God

With all your heart, and with all your soul,

And with all your strength.

Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.”

This prayer is known to the Jews as the “Shema.” It conveys the basic tenet of the Jewish faith, and faithful Jews recited it several times a day. Some wear it as an armlet while at prayer. They place it on their doorpost as a reminder to recite it as they enter and leave their homes.

In today’s gospel, the scribe is also searching for a guiding principle. He is a scholar of the Law but is seeking a clearer insight from the Law. In Jesus’ day, there were 614 precepts of the Law. Since it was difficult for most people to remember all those rules, the sign of a good rabbi was the ability to synthesis the Law into a short saying that was easy to remember and conveniently applied to everyday life.

The scribe in the gospel has been listening to Jesus. He recognizes Jesus as a person of character. He realizes that Jesus preaches with a clear insight and would be a good source for a new understanding that condenses the Law into a short maxim.

For his answer, Jesus recites the Shema, which is not particularly unique. Then Jesus adds verse 19:18 from Leviticus. He says:

The second is this:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

By connecting the love of God and the love of neighbor, he gives the scribe and us the new life principle we need. We show our absolute love for God by loving and caring for the needs of our neighbors.

Today I’d like to share with you another life principle. It is one from agriculture and farming and is particularly appropriate at this time of year. It is the Harvest Principle. This law of nature says: “ You reap what you sow.”

I want to add a caution. Sometimes this law is used as a weapon to blame others. People sometimes use it to make others feel guilty and bad about themselves. They use this principle to negate the suffering of others and to justify not loving our neighbor. We say, “Well, they had it coming to them.” That is not my intention.

My focus is on the point that we reap in kind what we have sown. When we plant a garden, we know that we can only expect corn to sprout when we plant corn seeds. It is the same with cucumbers. We sow cucumber seeds, and our yield is cucumbers. We reap and receive as we plant, and everything reproduces its kind.

The lesson is life is all connected. Our actions matter and will impact our living. What we do or fail to do will impact our future. When we sow good, we can expect good to come back as our harvest. If we sow seeds of anger and hurt, we can expect only the same as our return. The truth is if you’re feeling those things in your life, it is most likely because you planted the seeds for it in your past. If you are enjoying peace and joy now, well, those are the results of your past worthy efforts.

Today as a nation, we enjoy freedom and liberty due to the sacrifices made by previous generations who were willing to commit their lives to protect and strengthen our way of life. Conversely, we recognize that our country has its flaws. A short review of our history shows we have made mistakes like slavery in the past, and they still haunt our culture today. We need to commit ourselves to work to reverse that harm planted in our history.

We must say the same about the Church. Monday is All Saints Day when we recall the many good works done by the anonymous holy people of the past. There have also been severe scandals in the Church like sexual abuse and intolerance that leave scars today. We must make reparations for them too.

This principle is not karma. Karma is a belief that comes from some Asian religions that say what a person does in this life shapes what they become when reincarnated in future lives. As Christians, we don’t believe in karma or reincarnation. The Harvest Principle impacts our lives here on earth.

While the Harvest Principle is not purely Christian, we find it in our scriptures. It appears in the books of Proverbs and Isaiah and especially in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. There Paul is quoted as saying, “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

We’ll remember from science and math classes in school that principles also have corollaries. These are other truths that occur because of the central principle. The first corollary of the Harvest Principle is while you reap what you sow, the harvest always takes time. Plants don’t sprout immediately. They need time in the ground to begin to set out roots before pushing through the earth. Plants need moisture and sunlight to grow before they give their fruit.

It takes time for the Harvest Principle to bear fruit, and that can be frustrating. It can sometimes be deceiving to have to wait for the results of our actions to become apparent. In life, nothing comes about immediately, and we need to resist giving up.

That isn’t easy to keep sight of when it appears some people seem to defy the Harvest Principle. We have experienced those who waste time and take advantage of others without seeming to be paying the consequences. Maybe it is you who is behaving like this. You aren’t being strictly faithful to a spouse or being deceitful in business. Eventually, the Harvest Principle catches up with all of us.

The second corollary to the Harvest Principle is while you reap what you sow, the harvest is always greater. This corollary brings to mind Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. In it, the farmer goes out sowing seed. The seed that fell on the fertile ground produced a great harvest. It reminds us that we receive the multiple of whatever we sow, either good or evil. When the fruit is ready to be harvested, it will be much greater than just the planted seeds.

Maybe you are beginning to have a sinking feeling, wondering if you have sown the wrong or bad seeds in your life. Perhaps this homily has inspired you to be the kind of leader or person of good character others look to for inspiration to shape their guiding principle. This week give some of your prayer time to contemplate the kind of seeds you have been planting with God. Have they been good seeds or bad ones? Whatever seeds they have been, either good or bad that can change. It isn’t too late to begin sowing another harvest. None of us is the total of our failures. Our past does not define us. The love of God and the love of neighbor we share today are most important to God. It is what we decide is our guiding principle today that will influence our future. While the Harvest Principle is important, God’s Law of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness is even more fundamental. With God’s grace, we can be the kind of person God created us to be.