Sunday, November 04, 2012

Keeping Our ‘Spiritual Mezuzahs’ Straight


(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on November 4, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Mark 12: 28b-34.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2012]


We didn’t suffer any major damage to our church and property during Hurricane Sandy.

Or so I thought.

Then, on Thursday, a man said to me, “Gee, Fr. Ray, isn’t it good that the church steeple didn’t fall off during the storm?”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

He said, “Didn’t you notice—the cross on top of the church steeple is crooked?  It’s bent backwards.”

And, sure enough, it is!

You don’t notice it from the front of the building, but you can see it if you look at the steeple from the side.

Rest assured, we will be working to get it straightened out in the very near future.  All of which brings to mind another question related to today’s gospel reading:

Is your mezuzah crooked—like the cross on top of our church?

You probably don’t have any mezuzahs in your home (although you might), but you certainly do have one in your heart.

And so do I.

But it’s not enough to have a mezuzah.  From a spiritual perspective, it’s very important that your mezuzah be straight and not crooked. 

It’s okay to have a crooked mezuzah in your house (if you do have one there), but not in your soul.

Are you confused yet?

Well, if you are, I will now do my best to un-confuse you!

First of all, what’s a mezuzah?  (The word, by the way, is spelled m-e-z-u-z-a-h.)

Ask your Jewish friends that question, and they’ll be happy to tell you that a mezuzah is a small, thin, tubular case (about the size of a container of lipstick).  Some mezuzahs are made of wood; others are made of metal or some other sturdy material.  Many of them are quite ornate, although they don’t have to be.

They’re hung on the doorposts of Jewish homes—on the right side of the frame, near the top.  There’s a special prayer of blessing that you recite when you first put a mezuzah up.

But what’s most important is what’s on the inside of it.  There you will find, written on a tiny scroll of parchment, the words of what the Jews call, “the Shema.”  (Shema in Hebrew is the command to hear.)  The Shema consists of the verses we heard at the end of today’s first reading from Deuteronomy 6 (along with a few others):  Hear, O Israel!   The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!  Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.   Take to heart these words which I command you today.  Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.   Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead.  Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.

Obviously the Jews take that last line literally, which is why they put mezuzahs on the doorposts of their homes.  When I was in Israel in the late 1990s, I remember seeing them all over the place—even in the hotels.

And the Jews don’t just put them up and leave them there for ornamentation.  When devout Jews pass through a door with a mezuzah on it, they touch the mezuzah, and then kiss the fingers that touched it—to express their love for God and to remind themselves of the commandment of God that’s inside: the command to love him with their whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

It’s a very nice—and a very meaningful—religious practice.

Now I always wondered why these mezuzahs were hung crooked—at an angle—and not straight.  That puzzled me.  And so I went to a couple of Jewish websites last week and did a little research on the matter.  And what I came across on one of them was this line: “Why is the mezuzah affixed at an angle?  [It’s because] the rabbis could not decide whether it should be placed horizontally or vertically, so they compromised!”

Mezuzahs are crooked because of a compromise.

To me, that fact has great spiritual significance.

I said at the beginning of my homily that, although we might not have any mezuzahs in our homes, each of us does have one in our heart.  As Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel, the command to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength is still valid!  It hasn’t changed.  It applies to us as much as it has applied to the Israelites since the time of Moses.  It is—and always will be—the first and the greatest commandment.

Which means that it’s always supposed to be in our heart—in our “spiritual mezuzah,” so to speak. 

And as Christians we’re supposed to have a second commandment in there as well: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These two commandments, in other words, are supposed to be at the foundation of our life of faith.  They’re supposed to guide us in every thought and word and action of our lives.

They’re supposed to guide us at home, at work, in school—and even when we vote this coming Tuesday!

In fact, that should be the bottom-line question for every Christian who goes to the polls on Election Day: Which candidates respect the law of God and the dignity of the human person the most?

Love of God; love of neighbor.

Of course, the sad reality is that we don’t allow these two commandments to guide us all the time.  Because we’re sinners, we all compromise our beliefs in various ways (like those rabbis compromised their beliefs), and our spiritual mezuzahs end up ‘crooked’—just like those mezuzahs on the doors of Jewish homes are crooked.

That’s why I said at the beginning of my homily that it’s really important that we try to keep our spiritual mezuzahs straight, and, when we don’t keep them straight and they do get crooked, we need to get them straightened out as quickly as possible through repentance.

Which, of course, is precisely what the sacrament of Confession is for.

So the next time you visit a Jewish friend and see a mezuzah on his doorpost, think of yourself.  Think of your life.  Remember the two commandments of Jesus, to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself.  And, as you look at that crooked container, think of the many ways that you have failed to live those commandments.

Then ask the Lord to straighten you out! 

And, of course, if you make a good confession afterward—the good news is, he will!