Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
I wonder if there is any phrase that we hear spoken in our own lived experience that touches us as deeply as when we hear someone say to us, ‘I love you’. Whether from someone we have been dating for awhile, or a close friend – or hearing a child or grandchild speak these words – those three small words have the power to transform and transfix us; to inspire and encourage us.
At the same time, though, in our society, we hear that phrase tossed about all too frequently in popular media as just another expression, like ‘hi, how are you?’ – almost reduced to a common greeting which, when asked, doesn’t really mean we are concerned ‘how’ the other person is. ‘I love you’ can be twisted and used to disarm and persuade another for our own benefit. It can, if used outside of its truest sense, become a means to an end – a means for one person to gain something for their own gratification or satisfaction.
We hear this word stated quite plainly and clearly in our gospel passage today from St. Mark, in which Jesus is engaged in a discussion with a scribe, a Jewish religious scholar/official of his day. Jesus, as a Jewish male, has been raised with the Scriptures, and Jesus, as the unrevealed Messiah in this setting, is tying the meaning of the Scriptures together in this discussion. Unlike many passages that we read about Jesus and the religious leaders, this one is not an argument – this is an exchange, a discussion, where the scribe seems to sincerely want to understand Jesus. That is when he asks Jesus what the first commandment of all is: and Jesus responds with the ‘Shema ‘Yisa’el’.
The Shema ‘Yisra’el would be the equivalent in some ways to our Creed – the most fundamental statement of faith: we say, ‘We believe in God’ etc. and encapsulate our main beliefs as Christians in a formal statement. The Shema ‘Yisra’el, found in the book of Deuteronomy, was the fundamental statement of the chosen people, handed down from Moses: ‘Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Jesus then quotes from the book of Leviticus, another of the Jewish books of the Law, of Torah, to provide the second great command: ‘ you shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
In both of these commandments, we see a call for self-surrender, of abandonment into love. The two commands that Jesus quotes from the Law divide, in a sense, everything handed down through the Law and the Prophets to two categories – Love of God, and Love of neighbour. If we look at the ten commandments for example, the first ones deal with our relationship with God (I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me) and the remainder deal with our relationship with our neighbours (honor your mother and father, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, etc.).
Central to all of this though, is the demand placed on the believer: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all’: all your heart; all your soul: all your strength. Jesus does not allow for negotiation or ‘wiggle room’.
He clearly points out, using the Scriptures, that God is not a god of percentages, as in ‘you shall love God with 50% of your heart, 25% of your soul, 10% of your strength’: He says all, and he means all. All of our hopes, our possessions, our actions should somehow be directed toward God. This is what God desires and demands – that we be united totally to Him; and it is in that total union that we draw others into that same relationship – us united to God, others united to us, others united to God and each other.
That’s one of the central points of Catholic thought and teaching: God and others – it’s not just about my personal relationship with God, and leaving it at that, ignoring everyone else: Catholic thought is distinct in that, it’s not just about ‘me and Jesus’ – it’s more about ‘us and Jesus’ – yes, we need to have a deep personal relationship with God, as in that first command; but it’s a relationship that includes the needs of others, as in the second command. It’s a total love, holding nothing back. Think back to the phrase, ‘I love you’. How meaningful is it when someone says, ‘I love you with all my heart,’? How meaningless would it be if someone said, ‘I love you about 65%’?’ The central point in all of this, is that we cannot have one without the other; we can’t love God without loving our neighbour – we can’t love our neighbour without loving God. In loving God completely, only then can we love our neighbour completely – and only in loving our neighbour do we completely express our love for God.