The Lord Alone. 31st Sunday OT

The first thing that struck me about this story, this particular week, is how Jewish it is. It’s such a Jewish scene from top to bottom. Approaching Jesus is a scribe, someone whose life is dedicated to studying the Torah and other Hebrew Scriptures. And he approaches Jesus as a Rabbi, as a teacher and interpreter of the Law of Moses. Jesus, in turn, answers in a most Rabbinic way, by directly quoting the Torah word for word. Hearing our Lord in this very Jewish role reciting Deuteronomy 6:4-6, I can’t help but think of the worst anti-Semitic violence in the history of our nation, last Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Please join me through this Mass in prayer for God’s blessing and protection on our elder brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham. Our kinship couldn’t be clearer as Jesus quotes Moses to answer this very fundamental question:  “What’s the first of all the commandments?”

I think there’s a holy impulse behind this question, a beautiful insight. It comes from a man immersed in the Scriptures, and the Scriptures are complicated. I’m sure he loves the richness and variety and complexity of the Torah. But he also feels a longing for simplicity, for coherence, for unity. Like what does it all boil down to? What’s it all about at the heart of it? Life gets complicated, but we have this longing, this intuition, to seek some kind of unity and simplicity behind it all. Religion gets complicated, too. There’s so much to learn, more than you could ever finish, and there’s beauty in that because it’s an endlessly rich treasure trove that never stops surprising and delighting, that never runs out of variety. But what’s the simple unity behind all of that? What’s the first commandment?

“The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” The Ten Commandments begin the same way, don’t they? “I am the Lord your God”… no other gods! The God we believe in is not one of the things that exist. He is alone. He is behind all that exists, beyond it. Everything else is creation, He is Creator. You know, if we’re speaking carefully, we don’t actually believe that God is a 'Supreme Being.' You’ve heard Him called that, but it isn’t quite true, because it places God among other beings and says He’s the biggest. Like OK, of all these beings, and the greatest and highest and supreme one is God. Wrong… God doesn’t sit in a line-up with other things. He doesn’t share a category with anything to which He might be compared. The Lord our God is God alone.

The next part, the most memorable part, is stated as a consequence, as a ‘therefore.’ He is God alone, “therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

If you think that sounds simple and easy, think harder! It’s simple and unthinkably hard. All the humility in the world can come from recognizing this as our goal, our first commandment. If we’re measuring ourselves by that standard, we can’t have any illusions that we’ve got this religion thing more or less dialed in. Really accepting this first commandment will shatter our apathy and spiritual laziness, and it will teach us to throw ourselves completely on the Divine Mercy as our only hope. Which is right where we want to be!

But that’s if we really get this first and greatest commandment through our heads. Maybe that’s why the first words are “Hear, O Israel!” Like the verbal equivalent of grasping your shoulders and shaking you. HEAR! Don’t dismiss this. Listen. Get it through your head. We are commanded - not requested, but commanded - to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love our neighbor as another self. Next to that commandment, there’s not a single one of us who shouldn’t be falling to our knees right next to Peter after the denials, next to the woman caught in adultery, and Mary Magdalene, and Zaccheus, and the repentant thief on the Cross, begging for the mercy we know is there for us if only we ask. And yet I hear on average probably a couple of confessions a week. Maybe we haven’t heard. Maybe we’ve settled for a lower standard.

Please pray and think deeply about this commandment; you’ll find the more you do, the more breathtaking it really is. But you also come to see why it’s necessary and unavoidable: if God is God, therefore, we owe Him absolute devotion.

What do we do instead? We try to fit God into our lives. So many spiritual failures boil down to this foundational disaster: trying to fit God into your life. If that’s my approach, I’m asking “how much of my time should I set aside for God?”, and “how much of my resources should be devoted to charity?” and so on. I think of my time as mine, but recognize that I owe God a slice of it. I think of my money as mine, but I recognize that some slice of it should be offered to God. Et cetera. And then I’ll walk around unsettled and plagued by doubt about whether it’s enough, whether I’m giving God a big enough slice. Eventually I’ll give under the strain and become a spiritual minimalist. My whole religious life will be focused on the minimum. What’s the least I have to do to not go to Hell? Can I commit this sin and probably not go to Hell over it? If so, sweet, it’s on!

This whole approach is a disaster because God does not want a slice of you. He is God alone, and you must, therefore, love Him absolutely and totally.  He is God alone, therefore, He will never, ever fit into your life. That’s exactly backwards. The point of being a Catholic Christian is not to fit some religion into your life, but to plunge yourself wholly and completely into God’s Life.

Christianity is not a hobby and the Church is not a club. Somehow we have to make all of our lives, every part of us, all of our heart and mind and soul and strength an offering to God in love — a love that reaches out to our neighbor as another self.

To really hear this first and greatest commandment, it’s no wonder Jesus is always telling us to not be afraid! Because there’s a lot here that we’re afraid of. We’re afraid of what will happen if we really sign up for this commandment. If I take up this challenge and go down this road, what will be left of me? Part of us is afraid that to give God everything will leave us flat and bored and boring, will leave us strung out and used up and joyless. But that’s the devil talking. God doesn’t want to take away everything that brings you joy. Giving Him your whole self doesn’t mean all fun comes to a halt. It just means that you are loving Him in all that you do. He delights in His children praying, He delights in their almsgiving, but also in their working hard for a living, and you bet He delights in their delighting in this beautiful world He’s made!

This is all pretty abstract, so I’ll wrap up with a really practical suggestion for what you can do about it. It’s about bookends to your day. The first bookend: start every day with a morning offering, a solid piece of prayer time, in conversation with Christ. This is not reading or praying the rosary - those are great, but this is something different - just personal time with the Lord. Offer Him your whole day. Ask Him to make the work you do, the meals you eat, the laughter, the aggravation, the entertainment, the emotions, ask Him to make all of it an offering. And then spend quiet time not asking for anything, but just being with Him, just sharing the time. Do this every day and keep it up even if you feel nothing’s happening or you’re just too distracted, keep it up especially then. He’s God, He can work with that. I think most anyone who doesn’t have babies can probably manage a half hour, but it’s your call. But let's be honest: when people say they're too busy, what they usually are saying is that there's a long list of things that are more important to them. Make this important to you. If you want to talk to me about how it’s going and how to make the most of this time, you will absolutely make my day.

The other bookend is simpler. End your day with an examination of conscience. This doesn’t have to take long. Just review the day in light of the first and greatest commandment. And thank God for all that was good, and say sorry and ask for help with all that wasn’t so good. Wake up tomorrow and repeat. If you do this consistently and with dogged persistence, God will change your life through it.

The greatest commandment is the most exciting and also the most impossible, the most exhilarating and also the most humbling, it’s the adventure we were made for and our road to real life and real joy. To love God with everything and to love our neighbor like they are our own self. The Church today stands in desperate need — surely I don’t have to convince you of this — the Church is in need as desperately as ever before, of heroes and Saints who will have the guts and the love to take up this challenge. You might as well be one, what else are you going to do with your life? Really, seriously, what else is worth your life? Hear, O Catholics: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.


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