The Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
2018 – Cycle B
Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד
Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
V’ahav’ta eit Adonai Elohekha b’khol l’vav’kha uv’khol naf’sh’kha uv’khol m’odekha.
“Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One!
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Observant Jews morning and evening pray this prayer from Deuteronomy. Jesus prayed this prayer. He knows it by heart as he speaks to the scribe today.
V’ahav’ta eit Adonai Elohekha “And you shall love the Lord your God…” But what does it mean to love God?
To love someone is to come to know them. But how do we come to know this God of Israel who is invisible, incomprehensible and beyond anything we can imagine? Is that why we are often tempted to put something or someone else before God: our career, our possessions, our ego?
I am reminded of the Virgin Mary as she responds to her cousin Elizabeth: “My soul – my whole being – proclaims – magnifies – the greatness of God and my heart – my spirit – rejoices in God my Saviour.” [Luke 1:46-47]
To whom or what do you and I offer our whole being? In whose service do we place our might and strength? The temptation to put something or someone else before God is great and often subtle. Is that why Jesus links the love of neighbor to the love of the invisible God? The First Letter of John makes the link clear and purposeful. The author is bold: “If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates their sister or brother, they are a liar; for whoever does not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. This is the commandment we have from God: whoever loves God must also love their sister or brother.” [1 John 4:20-21]
In our very divisive times where people are pitted against each other;
…in the light of the racism and anti-Semitism put on display in Charlottesville and now in Pittsburgh;
…in the rhetoric against refugee women, children and families of Central America trying to escape poverty, drug lords and death;
…in regard to the issue of sexual harassment highlighted by the # Me Too Movement and the international walkout by employees of Google which pits women against men;
…in a world where infants, children and women bear the burden of a civil war in Yemen as they always bear the burden of war;
…in the technological warfare of cyberbullying which has led many an adolescent to suicide – love of neighbor takes on a heavy weight of responsibility and challenge if we are to say that we love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might.
Thomas Merton is one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he wrote a collection of essays in 1960 entitled, Disputed Questions. In the chapter entitled Christianity and Totalitarianism, written in light of the experience of World War II, his searing words are eerily apropos for our present world situation and reflection on the love of God.
Merton reflects on the person who cannot face personal responsibility; who hides in the crowd. Anonymous crowds intoxicated by slogans that give them a purpose because they are afraid of their own isolation, weakness and limitations. Such a person, Merton writes, cannot face the hard work of discovering the spiritual power of integrity and love within them. It is easier to hate. Hate is less subtle than love. Hate does not respect the individual in their complexities. Hate makes decisions at a glance: an unfamiliar face or skin colour, a distinctive dress, a different purpose or way of thinking, an accent. All these and more became the reason to identify “the enemy”. Because that which is unfamiliar causes fear. And that which is feared must be, as Merton posits, brought into line – or destroyed. It is confirmed not only in the human record of conquering empires but in many a science fiction film which portrays us as fearful and so we seek to destroy the alien; the one different from us, the one from a different planet, who is more powerful than us since they have conquered space travel, who does not look or speak like us. Our own entertainment has reinforced our fears and reasons for hate.
Thus Merton concludes: “It is against this temptation most of all [the temptation of hate] that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever [they] can, and first of all in [themselves], the capacity of love which makes [the human being] the living image of God.”
And when the human being is encountered as the living image of God, then a person can love with their whole being, heart and soul, might and strength, the invisible God.
The full quotation of Merton’s text:
“A mass movement readily exploits the discontent and frustration of large segments of the population which for some reason or other cannot face the responsibility of being persons and standing on their own feet. But give these persons a movement to join, a cause to defend, and they will go to any extreme, stop at no crime, intoxicated as they are by the slogans that give them a pseudo-religious sense of transcending their own limitations. The member of a mass movement, afraid of [their] own isolation, and [their] own weakness as an individual, cannot face the task of discovering within [themselves] the spiritual power and integrity which can be called forth only by love. Instead of this, [they] seek a movement that will protect [their] weakness with a wall of anonymity and justify [their] acts by the sanction of collective glory and power. All the better if this is done out of hatred, for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to respect reality as love does. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies an enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand. [They are] something unfamiliar. This is not “ours.” This must be brought into line – or destroyed.
It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever [they] can, and first of all in [themselves], the capacity of love which makes [the human being] the living image of God.”
Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, the chapter entitled Christianity and Totalitarianism