Nov 3, 2012

31st Sunday: What's most important?

"You are not far from the kingdom of God"

The Word:
Deut 6: 2-6
Hb 7: 23-2
Mk 12: 28-34

“What is our reason for loving God? God himself is the reason we love him; we love him because he is the supreme and infinite goodness. What is our reason for loving ourselves? Surely because we are the image and likeness of God. And since all men and women possess this same dignity we love them as ourselves, that is, as holy and living images of the Godhead.
It must always be understood, however, that we love our neighbors for this reason, that they are made in the image and likeness of God, created to communicate in his goodness, share in his grace, and rejoice in his glory.
To have a Christian love for our neighbors is to love God in them, or them in God; it is to cherish God alone for his own sake, and his creatures for love of him.”
St. Francis de Sales
Francis de Sales, the 17th century Bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, known for his gentleness and charity, wrote these words above.  He has become known as the “Gentleman Saint.” That surely implies a way in which he presented himself to others and the way in which he would deal with people on a day to day basis.  A gentleman or lady implies respectful behavior, good example, politeness, a proper composure, appropriate dress, acceptability, and other such sort of social qualities. The above quote reflects our readings this Sunday on the love of God and neighbor.

Yet, some may view the polite and respectful as those who really are just a stuffed shirt and unwilling to break loose and take chances or live on the edge. But, what God asks of us in our readings this week casts itself back thousands of years – to that moment when God revealed himself to the ancient Hebrew people on Mt. Sinai through Moses, his chosen messenger. We're not called to be stuffed shirts but to relate with the living and true God.

As the Book of Deuteronomy proclaims today, what is referred to as the great Shema: “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.”

God speaks to the people of Israel to resist compromise with foreign false gods and to turn their entire being, heart, mind, soul, and strength, to the living and loving God who has called them to be his people.  Through them, salvation will come to all humankind.

As St. Francis de Sales reminds us, “God himself is the reason we love him; we love him because he is the supreme and infinite goodness.”

We love God because he is God and ourselves and our neighbor because we are made in the image of God.  What could be more fundamental than that?  It implies that we behave in ways that reflect this belief – this command really from God.  It is a command that is pointed not only to a nation – “Hear O Israel” – but also to individuals as well in which God wants faithful individuals to form a faithful community.

This love of God and neighbor, as the two greatest commandments, was somewhat of a test by Jesus of a local scribe.  At the heart of Jewish law, was this fundamental principle based upon the Ten Commandments.  The first Commandment to love God above all other gods (Commandments 1 – 3) and our Neighbor – (Commandments 4 – 10) in Ex 20: 1 – 17, is indeed the summary of all Jewish legal structure.  This was a revelation of the Covenant made between God and humanity.  Certainly not a covenant between equal parties but an desire of the overwhelming love of the creator to relate on a personal level with his creatures at the top of the created order – man and woman. The Scribe was attempting to verify if Jesus knew that for at times his teaching may have sounded a bit more lax or liberal in pushing the edge of literal understanding.

For our Lord clearly expanded the notion of neighbor beyond our fellow Jew.  His reaching out to those considered “unclean” (leper, blind, lame, crippled, tax collectors, adulterers, gentile, etc) raised the legalistic eyebrows of those considered to be experts in the law. Certainly, Jesus’ treatment of women was unprecedented for an honored rabbi. Yet, even in Jewish law charity could be extended to the alien but only love offered to one’s fellow Jew.

Our Catholic tradition should take great pride in what our Church has done to assist the poor and unfortunate; to bring compassion to those who are forgotten and helpless; to educate the ignorant and form them in Gospel values.  Our Catholic sponsored Schools and Universities, our charitable institutions, hospitals and health care facilities all reflect the great mission of the Church. They are charity in action based upon what is always first for us – to orient our life priorities beginning with our faithfulness to God alone. No small task! There is a hierarchy of importance here.  Love God first above all things and then love for your neighbor will follow in kind. Your neighbor begins at home by the way.

Doesn’t love for neighbor begin with a love of God first?  In the case of Christians, it begins with faith in Jesus Christ.  As one follows the other we have the basic structure around which to live our lives. And, as one a seeks out the Spirit’s guidance in our lives, we can live out this great Shema with faithfulness.

At the top of our life pyramid as it were, what (who) do we find? Do I see my neighbor as God sees them?  No, Christian charity is not always easy or comfortable.  But if God is not my most important value, I will naturally find something else to fill that void – and it may not always be of God. Our gatherings at Eucharist are intended to be an illustration of this “faithful community.” What can we learn as a take home lesson from those sacred times?