Unlike most of the scribes and Pharisees that approach Jesus with questions intended to trap him, the scribe in today’s Gospel approaches Jesus with a sincere question. “Which is the first of all the commandments?” By “first” he is asking not about a ranking in importance – which commandments must one follow verses which ones are of lesser importance. Rather, he is looking for a general principle or summary statement that grounds all the commandments – the condition, if you will, that must come “first” that allows one to live out the other commandments of the law. Jesus responds by quoting a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that is known as the great “Shema”. It is the Israelite profession of faith. “Shema” is the Hebrew word for “Hear”. We hear this passage in a fuller context in the first reading today. The Israelite faith is not based on their greatness or power but on God’s self-revelation toward them. In a polytheistic world, God has revealed himself to the Israelites, not as just their God, but the one God of the entire universe, and he has chosen them as his own. God has intervened in their history and saved them in a surprising way. The way God reveals himself is through mercy. The Israelites are saved in an unmerited way. They are given new life and freedom. This experience of being chosen and saved generates a sense of total belonging to God. “I owe God everything.” I love God because he has loved me first. When we “hear” this – really take it in – “take it to heart” – this love defines our whole being and we desire to love God in return – to love in the same way. “Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Love is not a feeling or a sentiment, but it is a response that generates life, is filled with energy, and that moves our whole self into action. In Jesus’ response, he explicitly combines this “first” command with the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This 2nd command is also part of the Hebrew scriptures, a quotation surely familiar to the scribe, but Jesus combines them in a new way. The scribe who “knew” these teachings already, in front of Jesus, has an “Ah ha” moment. “You are right!” This insight “is worth more than all burt offerings and sacrifices”, meaning more than what any human being can offer to God. What gave the scribe this new-found understanding? What allowed him to see a truth that he couldn’t see before? First, he approached Jesus with an open heart – an open question – a sincere seeking, but that was combined with seeing this teaching “in the flesh”. With the Incarnation, Jesus is both God and neighbor to us. Jesus loves his “neighbor” with the love of God. And the love of God is experienced in a human way – through a human encounter. These two teachings are united and given expression in his very person. It is not only the words being said but the person communicating the words that give them meaning. The abstract teaching has been made concrete in Jesus.
So why does Jesus, after seeing that the scribe answered with understanding, say to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God”? He implies that he is close but not yet in the Kingdom. What does he still lack? Simply understanding a truth is not enough. A theoretical agreement with a teaching is not enough. One only enters the kingdom when the “kingdom of God” enters you – when the truth takes flesh in your person. When the Word of God becomes incarnate in you – when the teaching is put into practice and the truth becomes a living reality in your life. Our love for God is made manifest only when expressed in a concrete way in love for our neighbor. And the neighbor can’t be loved apart from God. These commands are inseparable because in Jesus the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparable.
For many of us Catholics, we believe what has been revealed by divine revelation – what the Church teaches and what is written in the scriptures. We might even be educated in the faith to understand the reasonableness and even the beauty of the teachings. But we also know how hard it is to put those teachings into practice. Knowing and understanding is not enough. Simply knowing and understanding the teaching does not bring about renewal in our life and in the church. What allows that teaching to be translated into action is the experience of being loved and chosen by God – by experiencing his mercy. Moses reminds the Israelites of this experience when he prefaces the instruction to keep the commandments with the words “Fear the Lord your God.” “Fear the Lord” doesn’t mean cowering in fear that God will crush us if we don’t obey him. Rather, “fear of the Lord” is “reverential fear”, which describes the experience of finding oneself in front of something incredibly awesome that humbles us. We approach the mystery of God with fear and trembling. It is like a man who holds his child for the first time and marvels at the gift he has been given. This is an incredible thing that has happened to me – a miracle – and an awesome responsibility. But this unmerited gift moves the man to love in a way beyond his capacity – in a way he didn’t think was possible. The child is not experienced as a burden because this sign of an incredible love gives the person a new-found energy and strength to love. How many of us know someone, perhaps ourself included, who became suddenly more responsible in response to the presence of a surprising love? I see this time and again with new parents and young couples who see profound changes in themselves – becoming better and more loving and giving persons – as a result of the surprising love they have received.
This weekend, we celebrate the feast day of our parish patron, St. Charles Borromeo. St. Charles lived from 1538 to 1584, and became one of the great reformers in the church during a time of great corruption and division, during the period of the Protestant Reformation. Charles came from a noble family near Milan Italy, and his uncle became Pope. His uncle named him a cardinal and the administrator of the diocese of Milan when he was only 23 years old. He was not even a priest at the time. Charles could have lived a very comfortable life with all the trappings of nobility and power, but he felt that he was called and chosen by God, and despite the urgings of his family, accepted the call to priesthood. The death of his older brother and the witness of religious and other bishops who lived lives of holiness, moved Charles to conversion and gave him this desire to put into practice the teachings of the church, first in his own life, and then in his diocese. Charles stressed education in the faith for the clergy and the laity – founding seminaries and what we now call CCD. But the most powerful teaching came from his personal witness. In 1576, there was a famine in Milan and an outbreak of the plague. Most of the nobility, including the governor, fled the city, but Charles remained to organize the care of the poor and minister to the dying. He used his own family fortune and went into debt to feed 60 – 70,000 people a day during this period. In the midst of wealth, he lived simply and humbly, seeing that everything that he was given was a gift to be given away. His work of reform earned him many enemies and he was met with much opposition. There was even an assassination attempt against him. Many complained against him because he was changing the way things had always been done and because certain folks were no longer able to make money off the church the way they did before.
We have a great patron saint in St. Charles. Let’s ask St. Charles to intercede for us in this parish and community now, for we need more people like St. Charles to put God’s love into action to bring about renewal and reform in our parish and in the Church. There are two beautiful prayers in the bulletin this week – one by St. Charles and the other to St. Charles. (One in Spanish and one in English). May God’s grace penetrate our hearts. May we hear his calling and experience his mercy so that we can love God with all our hearts and love our neighbor as ourselves.