17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Toss or Keep? The Ultimate Litmus Test
As I’ve said before, I’m a thrower-outer. There’s not much that gives me more pleasure than to dump a bunch of junk, scrub out the place it had rested, and revel in the apparent order that follows. Until my husband or children go looking for something I’ve discarded. Chaos ensues as the needed item is first looked for at home and then frantically searched for on the internet or in the shops. My careful orchestration loses its façade of harmony and reveals an attempt at control.
In first meeting Jesus, I bet many people thought He was a thrower-outer too. No matter how many times He reminded people He had “come not to abolish the law but fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17), people persisted in pigeon-holing him as an anarchist. For some, that was the role they wanted Him to have. Others fled from this image. But life is never black-and-white. That would make things too easy. No one is ever all one thing OR the other—our existence lies on a continuum. As I am slowly learning, not only do we all have junk, but at least some of it is worth keeping.
At the end of this teaching in Matthew, when they tell Jesus they understand His teaching, Jesus replies, to paraphrase, “then each of you is a leader who ‘brings from his storeroom both the new and the old’” (v. 53). Did you catch that? Both the new and the old can be worthy and valuable. Not that all the old is valuable nor is all the new. But some of each is worth storing. Just as Jesus’s life was meant to demonstrate, the new builds on the old. In other words, don’t just throw it all away.
This vindicates my junk-tossing sessions a bit. While dumping everything is not good, storing up endless junk isn’t useful either. So, we must parse, and parsing is never easy. Actually, the sorting process is downright messy because it involves deep thought about personal motivations. Such reflection is always daunting because we may see something we don’t like. Humm…like how throwing out could be a grasp at control. Not a pretty picture. I prefer the lens of organization.
Sorting is a complex process of conscious evaluation, and that’s how we learn: what we do, we understand. To teach His listeners to think, Jesus used ambiguous parables and encouraged questions. He never told His followers to just swallow His pill. Paul reiterates this conviction in Romans 14:15 when he says, contrary to the Jewish law, followers of Jesus may eat anything they want, unless, “your brother is being hurt by what you eat, [then] your conduct is no longer in accord with love.”
Love is the ultimate litmus test. The greatest commandment (Matthew 22:38-39). If the law supports love for God or for our neighbor, no matter how old or odd, it stays. If not, it’s out. Same for the new. Love, not arbitrary box-checking rules, is what separates the “wicked from the righteous” (v. 49) and is the foundation to build our houses on. I need to remember that when I tackle my next closet.