Homily, 17th Sunday after Pentecost
We live in an Information Age, constantly bombarded with endless words, images, advertisements, and competing ideas. I vaguely remember a time when cell phones were actually used primarily for making phone calls, and as I was growing up at home, we still had a couple sets of encyclopedias, which many people younger than I have probably never seen. Before the days of Wikipedia, when you had a question about something, instead of “Googling it” or asking Alexa or Siri, we would actually take a book off the shelf and try to find it alphabetically. In the sea of information available to us today with the Internet always at our fingertips or in our pockets, we can definitely understand the motivation for the scribe’s question to Jesus in today’s Gospel. What’s the main point? Could you narrow it down for us? What’s the most relevant information for me? What am I going to have to remember for the exam? “Which is the greatest of all the commandments?”
Instead of replying with one of the 10 Commandments and their familiar phrasing from the Exodus account, Jesus quotes one of the laws from the Book of Deuteronomy to emphasize not just what we must do, but also the why. The center and motivation of our response to God, what’s most important, is love, and that we love God totally, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus goes on to give sort of a bonus answer, the second greatest commandment: to “love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.
Now it should seem rather obvious, but it’s important that we keep the first commandment as the first and our greatest responsibility, our top priority, and to keep the second as the second. Total love of God is more important than anything else, and love for our neighbor is next on the list. So many of the disorders and unhealthy patterns in our own lives, so much of the dysfunction in our relationships and in our families stems directly from placing love for myself above my love for God or neighbor. Or I place love for my neighbor, for what others might think of me or trying to please everyone around me, I place these concerns above my love for God, and I end up being unfaithful to God to please and to keep false peace with my neighbor.
A common misconception that’s been around for quite a long time says that we can love God only through loving our neighbor. This is false and has led to major problems even within the Church. I’ve heard this error defended by appealing to the first letter of St John where he says, “Whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Of course, John is not contradicting what Jesus says in the Gospel but warning against an empty piety that pretends to love God while despising everyone. We need both, both love of God and love of neighbor, and we can’t really have one without the other, but they’re not always the same thing, and our love for God needs to come first. And we don’t just love God through loving our neighbor. If we’re not setting aside time and energy each day just for prayer, for silence, to be alone in the presence of our God, our relationship with Him will not be what it needs to be, and all our other relationships suffer. God is First. And when He’s not, everything else is put out of order as well.
Now even if we give God, let’s be generous and say that we even give Him two and a half hours every Sunday, that’s still less than 1.5% of our entire week. Not quite loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Each and every day, do we wake up and say to God, “Lord, I give this day to you. Whatever good I am able to do, whatever happens, whatever I have to suffer, I offer or endure it for love of You”? We are Catholic Christians not just on Saturdays or Sundays, but also on Tuesdays, and every other day of the week. The relationship we have with God should affect what we do every day, how we conduct ourselves in the workplace, in the classroom, on sports teams and recreation, in music and the arts, in the grocery store, even in heavy and incompetent traffic on the road. Do we live differently because we know Jesus Christ and because He knows us? Do we actually put God first in our lives, or is He relegated to second, third, or fourth?
What can we start doing this week to help us remember God in our daily lives? Maybe something as simple as starting each day with the Morning Offering: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.”