Monday, November 5, 2012

The Greatest Commandment

Homily for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

This week I was listening to Catholic radio and the presenter was talking about how he often asks people this rather interesting question: “What do you think is the most serious sin?”  Most people, he has found, will say murder, or rape, or torture – some heinous crime against humanity.  But no – he argued, these are not the most serious of sins.  Instead, he said, we should first think about which is the greatest commandment, because if  you want to know the greatest sin, first you have to know the greatest commandment, right?  And we hear the answer in our Gospel today, don’t we: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Since this is the greatest commandment, when we fail to observe it, it follows that we commit the most grievous of sins.

But how can we not fail this first and greatest command?  ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL your mind, ALL your strength.  You can see why St. Paul said “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”  Who can say with a straight face that they observe the greatest commandment faithfully each day?  Even for an hour?  Yet, when we reach the end of our lives there should be no doubt, the question that Jesus will ask each of us is probably not “Did you kill anyone?” or “What did you steal?” or even “Have you been a good person?”, but “Do you love me?”  That’s what he asked St. Peter – “Do you love me?” –  Today he asks each of us: “Do you love me?.”

His question searches the heart, the mind, the will, the soul.  Our answer cannot just be a superficial matter of nice feelings, a kind of good will toward God – “Yeah, he’s a good guy and I like to talk to him from time to time…  like having him around.”  That’s not the kind of love he’s talking about – the kind of love we have for pizza or our favorite rock band.  He is asking whether we follow the greatest commandment: whether we love him with our whole selves.

Now, I have grown up in what we might call a rather rebellious age – and so in the back of my mind I immediately hear voices of protest:
Well, what if we don’t want to?  What if we want to love other things too?  Other people?  What gives God the right to demand ALL of our love?  Our mind and strength and heart… Doesn’t he respect us and want us to be ourselves?  Why would he ask everything from us, then?  It seems like a kind of slavery!

But wait.
What is the mind?  It is a gift from God that is made specifically by him to find its greatest joy in knowing and understanding him.  So commanding that we use the mind to love God is like commanding that we use a calculator for math.
What is the heart?  A gift from God made to be restless until it rests in him.  So commanding the heart to love God is like commanding that seeds be planted in the ground.
What is the strength, the will, if not a gift from God that is made to find peace and strength when it operates in union with God’s will?  Commanding that we use the will to love God is like commanding that a train follow the track.
What is the soul if not a gift from God: a spiritual substance made in his image and likeness dwelling within and giving life to our bodies?  Commanding that we love God with our soul is like commanding that that a fish swim or a duck quack or an eagle fly.

Slavery?  Far from it.  To love God with our whole heart and soul, mind and strength is also to know and love yourself.  We are made to love God with our whole selves: that’s what makes us fully human and capable of loving others.  The human person is only in order when his or her life is ordered toward God.  That’s how God made us.  And so his great command of love is given to us because he loves us and wants us to find joy and freedom in the fullness of our humanity.

But I think we also need to look at another, very basic truth here.  There is a God, and we are not God.  For most of us it would seem that this truth goes without saying.  But so many in our culture seem to have forgotten that we are creatures, that we aren't in charge.  Who says you can’t be a god?  You can be anything you want to be, right?  We live in a time when we are encouraged to act as if we were little gods from an early age, pretending that we have the right and ability to determine when human life is sacred, to define for ourselves basic human relationships, and to decide when actions are morally right and wrong, as if God had not already determined and defined and decided all of these things.  As if there were no plan for us, no purpose for human life, no destiny that awaits us.  As if our world were a blank chalk board that we can just write on, making up reality as we go, determining for ourselves what is right and true and good.

The first and greatest commandment is a sobering reality for our culture: the Lord our God is Lord alone.  We do not have the right or the ability to make ourselves according to our own imaginings and dreams.  We are made in the image and likeness of God – we are his people and he is our God.  He has made us and we belong to him.

Why are we here offering ourselves to him at Mass with Christ? Why do we pray, why do we follow his commandments?  Certainly because in loving God we find joy and we are given the hope of eternal joy with him forever in heaven.  Yet at a very basic level, isn't is also simply a matter of respect?  Of respect and honor - of our duty as his creatures?  He has given us everything, he made us and upholds us.  Can we, in good conscience, refuse him anything when everything we have is from him?

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