Rev. Joseph Keating
31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
The human memory is a funny thing.
We can all memorize a certain number of things, especially if they are in a set, and if we repeat them often enough. Take, for example, the seven days of the week or the twelve months of the year.
Even better, memorization of a large number of items is always easier if you turn it into a song. I’m willing to bet that every last one of us learned the 26 letters of the alphabet by learning the alphabet song.
Even our prayers are easier when we set them to the tune of a hymn. To this day, I can only remember the words of the Salve Regina if I sing it, or at least hum the tune in my head.
But when the set of data to memorize gets bigger and bigger, it becomes nearly impossible to memorize, at least for most of us.
Can you remember all 50 states?
Can you remember all 73 books of the Bible?
How about all 721 Pokémon?
(My 18-year-old cousins probably can.)
But it’s not just large numbers that make the memory fail; when we don’t do something very often, it tends to slip out of our memory. For example:
Do you remember the last time you replaced the batteries in your smoke detector?
Do you remember your login password on Turbo Tax?
Will/did you remember to set your clocks back one hour this weekend?
The point is this: We humans can’t remember things that are too great in number or that happen infrequently.
In the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, there were 613 written laws that the Jews had to follow. Many of these laws dealt with dietary rules and sexual morals. Some other laws governed farming, land transactions, and foreign policy. Some concerned the priesthood and ritual sacrifices. Still others concerned violent crimes and the judicial system. Breaking any of these laws would carry with it some kind of penalty, ranging from the death penalty for the most serious violations, all the way down to lesser penalties for lesser violations.
Now, I have a hard enough time remembering where I left my coffee cup, so remembering all 613 laws is not something I am prepared to do. Fortunately for us, Jesus has narrowed down all these 613 commandments into two greatest commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t know about you, but I think two commandments are much more manageable than 613. That’s something I can actually remember. So that solves the numerical problem when it comes to memorization.
But what about our second problem, that of repetition? Well, it just so happens that one of these 613 Mosaic laws was to pray the Shema twice daily. The Shema was a short prayer that the Jews and even the early Christians would pray. The word Shema means “Listen!” or “Hear!” In fact, we have just heard the Shema read to us twice in the readings at this Mass. It is the prayer that begins: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone!” It is the commandment that Jesus quotes when the scholar asks him what is the first of all commandments.
The brilliance of this commandment is that it ensures that every Jew from Moses to Jesus and beyond would have memorized the greatest commandment in the law. It doesn’t take a lawyer or a legal scholar to know and follow the greatest commandment. Everyone knows what God expects of them, because they would have repeated the Shema twice daily. It becomes engrained on the memory from a very early age. Every other law that follows it is simply an elaboration on this one greatest commandment. It’s almost like it was designed this way.
Now, it bears noting that the United States of America has a lot more than 631 laws. In fact, we have over 20,000 laws—and that is just the laws governing ownership of guns. At last count, there are 4,450 federal crimes—so many, that it seems impossible for anyone to avoid committing at least one of them.
Why, then, do we have so many laws? I think it’s because with each generation, we are losing the law that should be written on our hearts. We are increasingly unloving towards one another, and so we have multiplied our civil laws, narrowing the playing field, cutting up our freedom into smaller and smaller bits, to keep us from violating the rights of one another.
We can’t even agree on what rights we ought to have, and whether they are based on natural law, or based simply on what I feel like claiming as my right. Many in our day and age believe we have a right to not be offended. My question to them would be, who says? Who gave you that right? Is it really a right at all? Surely, in a large enough group of people, anything I say is going to be taken the wrong way; someone is going to be offended. And that’s just my little rant about civil rights.
The point is that the infinite multiplication of laws is a terrible approach to law in general. No one can remember or even begin to understand so many laws. St. Thomas Aquinas says that we can’t legislate against every vice—that would be impossible for a few reasons, mostly because it would be impossible to enforce, and also because we are always coming up with new ways to sin. We only need laws against the most egregious crimes. After that, we must be governed by something else. We must be guided by a law written on our hearts, something that the Christian would call love; and the secularist could at least call virtue.
The Christian, too, should focus on pursuing virtue. The virtues ensure that we avoid the innumerable vices that tempt us. Chief among the virtues is the theological virtue of love. And what is meant by love? The world wants to define love as an emotion, but emotions are passive. Love, on the other hand, is active. It is a choice. It is to do the good for another person, regardless of what it costs you.
The Greeks called this kind of love agape. I’ve preached before about the different senses of the word “love” in Greek. This word, agape, is the word for love that is used most often in the New Testament, and it is the word used by Jesus in our Gospel today. Agapeseis God with all your heart… Agapeseis your neighbor as yourself.
This command of Jesus is to love God with all that we are.
To love God is to serve God with our entire mind; that is, in our thoughts, decisions, conversations, and entertainment.
It means to serve God with all our soul by our attentiveness and devotion to the Lord’s presence with us throughout the entire day, not only when we kneel down to say our prayers.
It also means serving God with all our heart by conforming every one of our desires and attractions to what is Holy and seeking God in our relationships, hobbies, and other interests.
Loving God also means to serve the Lord with the strength we exert thru our daily tasks and involvement in the larger community. Any activity of a disciple’s life that cannot be reconciled with the presence of God is an action contrary to the love of God and an indication that we have failed to fulfill this great commandment.
It is only when a person loves and seeks God in this way, with every aspect of his whole being, that he can know just how much God loves him. Then, resting in the unfathomable love of God, he turns outward, and he can love all others as God loves him.