November 4, 2018: Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
“Religion is all about Rules.” Recently, I was chatting with a young woman during a ride share. Curious about my white habit, we struck up a conversation about Catholicism, religious life, and religion in general. When I asked her if she was a person of faith, she said that, although she believed in God, she was uncomfortable with religion. “Religion is all about rules and I don’t believe in a God of rules and punishments.”
In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus is asked about rules. Specifically, he is queried about which of the 613 commandments of the Law is the greatest. Famously, Jesus paraphrases the Shema Yisrael, which every observant Jew would pray twice daily: Hear, O Israel The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This Great Commandment summarizes the heart of the law: Love. Though Jesus does not abrogate the law, he makes it clear that the purpose of the law is to cultivate a relationship with God and others. Religion is not all about rules. Rules flow from our relationship of faith.
Like my ride share companion, we are often uncomfortable with the idea of being “commanded” to do something, because it seems to deprive us of the right to choose how we behave. We bristle against the notion that following God’s commands make us good and breaking them makes us bad.
But our notion of law as divine capricious commands is quite different from the context in which it arose. For the Jewish people, the law and Commandments are a gift. They are not simply a set of regulations to be blindly followed. Rather they give unique insight into the mind of God. As creator, God has made laws which govern the universe. In fact, creation itself is an act which brings order from chaos. What is true of the natural world is also true of the moral life. Just as gravity is a law of nature, God’s love is law of relationship. Amid evil and selfishness, God reveals his guide to the spiritual laws of love. The law is a gift from God, and for this reason, the day on which God gave the commandments is a feast of Pentecost.
Further consider the Hebrew word “mitzvah.” Popularly, when someone says, “it’s a mitzvah,” they usually refer to a charitable, beneficial act performed by another person. However, the Hebrew word mitzvah does not originally mean “a good deed” in that sense. Mitzvah literally means “commandment.” But because the commandments are the gift of God’s blessings to his people, to follow the commandments has become known as a blessing or charity action in itself. In fact, the Torah itself says that when God gave the commandments, God declared: Behold, I have set before you the blessing [of observing the mitzvot] and the curse [the potential punishment for failing to observe the mitzvot] — therefore, choose life! The People of Israel realized that the Commandments were a unique insight into God Wisdom and following them empowered them to be God’s blessing in the world. This week, let us give thanks for the gift of the law and strive to see and love others with all of our mind, heart and strength.
Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.