Sunday the Thirtieth

Let hearts rejoice who search for the Lord. Seek the Lord and His strength, seek always the face of the Lord (Psalm 104:3-4).

I love you, Lord, my strength. (Psalm 18).

“When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" (Matthew 22:33-35).”

The person came to the Lenten Penance Liturgy with a paper filled margin to margin with a list of sins committed over the previous few months. When the time came for individual confession of sins and absolution, the person came to me and began by showing me the list. I was told that it had been written over the course of a couple of days in preparation for the evening celebration of the Rite of Penance (I was moved by the seriousness of the person’s Examination of Conscience). Much was on the list, meticulously organized under a few, specific Commandments. No sooner had I seen the list when the person crumbled it into a ball, looked me in the eye and said, “I missed the whole point with this list.” Curiously I asked, “Missed what point and how?” “You see, father, I have all my sins grouped under particular Commandments. But as I listened to the Reading from the Old Testament tonight (we had used Deuteronomy 6:4-9) I realized I never even gave the First Commandment any thought or reflection. I jumped right to number 4 (“Honor your father and mother”) and began examining my conscience from that point. Dealing with the first 3 commandments and especially the First seems so nebulous and vague to me. But it hit me tonight; without the First Commandment I don't stand a chance of getting anything else in its right place.” We then proceeded to spend a few moments examining connections between the First Commandment and everything on the list. Items on the list were important matter for the Sacrament – AND – all of it needed to be viewed in the context of the First Commandment.

We learn from an ancient commentator on Sacred Scripture, Origen of Alexandria (†254), that the question posed by the scholar of the law was not the noteworthy event of the episode. What was eye opening is that Jesus answered the question “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” In other words, by responding to the question Jesus taught that there is, what we might call, an ‘order of importance’ or a hierarchy of truths and values when it comes to the Commandments. Origen further noted, “This is the supreme and the first commandment in which the discourse of Jesus presents a vital point to take-to-heart because of the commandment’s importance. Other [commandments] are secondary to this one (Commentary on Matthew).” Contemporary biblical scholars, following insights that already surfaced in the Age of the Fathers and among Ancient Christian Writers, note that the question concerning ‘which of the Commandments is most important’ reflected discussion that characterized religious life during the time of Jesus’ Public Ministry. There were a number of prescriptions (613 according to theologians and historians) that defined Covenant living. With so many individual precepts, it was a humanly natural question to ask which one was most important. Ask any professor in university or seminary and you will learn quickly that students engaged in any discipline want to know ‘what is most important’ if for no other reason than to pass the test, essay, assignment or course.

Interestingly, Jesus’ response to the scholar-of-the-law’s question is linked to an important discipline of Jewish living. As a devout Jewish Man, Jesus would have practiced the praying of the Shema. Shema is a Hebrew verb that means “to listen / to-take-to-heart.” Shema is also the word that is used to designate an important DAILY prayer that is recorded Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The fact that this prayer defined daily Jewish living makes the scholar’s address to Jesus suspect. Would not the scholar-of-the-law know the answer to the question? (Incidentally, this notes the observation already evident among Ancient Christian Writers that addressing Jesus as “teacher” in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew is an insult. Only truly disciples (“those who are being taught”) address Jesus as “Teacher.” These true disciples manifest their true colors as disciples by the way they live the Kingdom of God.)

Yet there is another reason why the Frist Commandment MUST be taken to heart. The First Commandment is a bold proclamation that God is Person – AND – the only Person Who is the ground of all reality and life. Theologically, personhood and relationality are synonyms. To be a person is to be a ‘being capable of relational living.’ ‘Being capable of relational living’ is the essence of personhood. Philosophy, psychology, sociology and other scientific disciplines can and do weigh in on the question, description and definition of personhood. But the biblical and theological approach is clear: relationship, relationship, relationship. One might (yes, I said “might”) argue that when one focuses on the specifics of thinking, expressing or doing, ones misses ‘Person’ and therefore misses relationship.

As a confessor (and yes, as a regular penitent as well … that means I ‘know’ what it is like to be on the other side of the screen or sitting before a confessor confessing my own sins), it is easy to focus on the ACTIONS that are sinful. It is another ‘thing’ to delve into the realm of relational living. I recall a recent conversation with friends married about 10 years. A spouse lamented the ‘feeling’ of not being loved. When I asked if the ‘feeling’ had been discussed, the response was most telling, “My spouse talked about all the WORK that is DONE for me and the family.” As human beings created in the “Image and Likeness of our Creator,” our lives are defined by ‘being’ (image and likeness) not by the work any of us do, no matter how significant. The same is true when we speak about our relationship with the Divine Persons. None of us can be content with what any of us does religiously. Sunday Mass, daily charity to one another – especially those in need – are importantly and laudable actions. Yet if they are not lovingly done in response to the love that has been revealed to us by the Divine Persons, we gain nothing.

Almighty and ever-living God,
strengthen our faith, hope and love.
May we do with loving hearts
what You ask of us
and come to share the life You promise
Who lives and reigns with You and
the Holy Spirit, One God for ever and ever. Amen.

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