31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – B • October 31, 2021 at St. Luke’s

“Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall the love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” We hear this in both the first reading and our Gospel today. This prayer is known as the Shema which is Hebrew for the word hear, the first word of the prayer:. And it is to the Jews what the Our Father is to Christians – basically the central prayer of the Jewish faith. Devout Jews pray it daily. And this prayer provides the basis of the whole of the Jewish faith – and of Christianity. Jesus himself quotes it from the book of Deuteronomy in his response to the question of one of the scribes.
Jesus’ encounter with this scribe is different from his usual encounters with the scribes and Pharisees and Herodians. Normally they approach in bad faith, trying to trap him or trip him up, get him to say something that will get himself into trouble, and so on. But not all of them were like this, and in today’s Gospel, the scribe is a good man of strong faith who sincerely seeks an answer to a question: What is the first of all the commandments?
This question was a source of much debate among the scholars of the Jewish law. There was a total of 613 laws in the Torah, and Jewish scholars of the law would often look for one overarching principle which would sum them all up. So, knowing that he is a man of good will, Jesus gives him a simple answer – there are no parables here to be deciphered, nor does Jesus answer the question with a question, as he often does when he is questioned in bad faith.
So the Shema – Hear O Israel – is not only the greatest commandment of Judaism, but also of Christianity. Jews and Christians alike believe that there is only one God, who is infinitely greater than everything else, who created everything that exists, and we believe that He loves us with an infinite love. Everything else that we believe – all the laws and doctrine, everything in the catechism – it all flows from this one overarching principle. And so, because we believe in this one, supreme, infinitely great and good God, it follows that this should involve some kind of response or attitude on our part with regard to Him: namely, that we ought to love Him simply for who He is, because He is God, and we should love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
In other words, we are to love God with our whole selves. Let’s look at each one of these four things – heart, soul, mind, and strength. The heart is “the inner depths of a person…from which all our decisions and actions flow.” The heart was understood by the ancients as not just where our capacity to love comes from, but where all of our emotions and our will come from. The soul is “our whole self as a living being” – it is that which gives life to our bodies. Jesus adds the mind to this list of the heart, soul and strength found in Deuteronomy. The mind gives emphasis to the fact that “our thoughts and reasoning” must be directed by love for God. And then finally, the word “strength” indicates that our love for God should not be equated with just an emotion or a sentiment or feeling of love, it also means a “commitment of the will” that requires “every ounce of our energy.” (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark) Love of course is often thought of in terms of just a feeling or an emotion: a pleasant one, a strong one, a positive one. Yes, it is that, or it can be that, but it is not only that. In fact, if we limit love to just a feeling or a sentiment, then we are really limiting our capacity to love. Any human relationship that involves love cannot just be limited to that – I think we all know that there are times that we struggle to love even the people we are closest to, whom we would say we love the most. I think we all know, at least on some level, that married love must be more than a feeling or emotion, or that it must grow into more than that, because there are days when the positive feeling just won’t be there. Love must be an act of the will – a decision, a daily decision – to desire and to strive for the good of the other for the sake of the other.
So likewise, there will be times, maybe often, maybe even most of the time, when we don’t necessarily feel love for God, or rather, associate a positive, warm and fuzzy feeling with our relationship with Him. If that’s the case, remember: love must be an act of the will, a decision to follow God, to listen to Him, to obey Him.
Thus far, Jesus has referred to our relationship with God. But even though the scribe had only asked Jesus about the first of the commandments, Jesus then adds the second, which comes from the book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In doing so, he is summing up the Ten Commandments, the first three of which have to do with our relationship with God, and then the next seven of which with our relationship with other human beings. In putting love of God and love of neighbor together like this, Jesus is essentially saying you can’t have one without the other. Clearly, love of God comes first – we must love God above all else, even above other human beings – but then what must necessarily come from that is love for neighbor. If we love God, and we should, then we must also love our neighbor. And in order to truly love our neighbor, which we should, we must likewise love God.
Love of neighbor is where a sort of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome can manifest itself. For example, some might say they love God, go to church, etc., but then get behind the wheel and turn into screaming maniacs. I’m reminded of an old Disney or Looney Tunes cartoon in which a pleasant, mild-mannered man, leaving home for work with his briefcase in hand, gets behind the wheel and into traffic; suddenly his eyes are bulging and bloodshot, he’s yelling, his hand is hitting the horn over and over, he’s weaving in and out of traffic…you get the idea. Or a more recent phenomenon: have you ever read an article online and then looked at the comments section? I have resolved many times not to bother with reading the comments, but unfortunately I still do it. It is amazing how often and how quickly they descend into savagery: scathing remarks, name-calling, withering sarcasm, it’s all there. I remember once posting on a travel website what I thought was a pretty innocent and straightforward question related to renting a car: I quickly got pounced on, some people were questioning my motives for asking the question, and inevitably it got political of all things. No: our professed love of God has to be lived out in love of others, and usually this happens in very ordinary ways that no one may ever notice.
At the same time, our love for others must be animated by our love for God. Yes, it’s true that even atheists and the so-called “nones” that I hear about so often – in other words, people without religion – can be kind and even love others. There are all kinds of secular organizations that do a lot of good. God has created each one of us with this capacity and even this need to love others. But, without love of God, our capacity to love others will be diminished; if our love for others is truly animated by our love for God, it will be greater and stronger than it otherwise would be. It will be less likely to be motivated by feelings, sentiments, and emotions, which as I hope you understand by now are a very weak foundation on which to build any kind of relationship. If we truly strive to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we will have the capacity to love others even when we do not like them – even when we don’t get a good or positive feeling from being around them.
This is the heart of our faith – it’s the summation of all of it: who God is, who we are, and how we are to live our lives in relationship with God and with others. It is so simple and yet so challenging too. No doubt we all have room for growth. But love is also not a static, unchanging thing – it can and should grow and deepen, and can do so with God’s grace. In other words, the more we love God and strive to follow Him, the more He will enable us to love both Himself and others.