31st Sunday of Ordinary Time: You are God; I am not

Today's Readings

You are God; I am not.

I was once told that those six words are perhaps the most important prayer a person could ever have. You are God; I am not. The whole point of any prayer in the first place is putting God and ourselves in proper order. We need to know what we must do, and what we can depend on God to do. We need to be able to respond to God's activity in our lives in order to be the people he has created us to be. We need to know that He is God and we are not.

The Jewish prayer that we hear in the first reading is quite similar to this prayer. That prayer is known as the Shema, and it is a prayer that the Jewish people have said every day since it was given to them by Moses in this story. There were just four Hebrew words to that prayer and they translate roughly to "LORD God; LORD one." Or, more readably: "The LORD our God is LORD alone." We hear Moses giving the Israelites this prayer today as they stood on the banks of the River, waiting to cross over into the Promised Land. You may remember that Moses was not to enter into the Land with them, and he knew that his time was drawing to a close. So in this speech, he is giving them a final bit of teaching and summing up all that he has said to them.

He teaches them, too, that it is love for God that is of primary importance. Knowing God is nice. Hearing God is nice. Obeying God is a good thing. But the final commandment he gives them is that they are to love the LORD God, and to love God with everything that makes them human: their heart, their soul, and their strength. Moses knew that love for God was what constituted a real relationship with God who longs to be in relationship with his people. Knowledge of God and obedience of God could never take them that far. And they are to love God completely because that is how God loves them: with God's whole heart, soul and strength. God continues to love his people, even when they have strayed, because that's just God's nature.

Fast forward now to Jesus' time and we hear the same teaching this time coming from the mouth of Jesus. In that time, the Scribes would often argue among themselves as to which of the 613 laws were of primary importance. They would classify some as "heavy" and others as "less weighty." So when the Scribe in today's Gospel reading asks Jesus which of the laws is the first of all the commandments, it is in that spirit that he asks. He is asking, teacher to teacher, which of the laws is the greatest.

But Jesus can't pick just one law. He has two favorites. The first of these is the law we heard Moses speaking in the first reading, although Jesus adds to it. For Jesus, we should love God not just with all our hearts, souls, and strength, but also with our minds. This completes for him the range of human faculties with which we must love God. If we do not love God with our hearts, those hearts become hardened and the source of all kinds of evil. If we do not love God with our soul, then we cannot count on the soul to see us through our trials and toward eternal life. If we do not love God with our minds then we may consider those who do so to be out of their minds. And if we do not love God with all our strength, then that strength will be used for all kinds of self-serving distraction that takes us out of relationship with God. Love of God is the first and greatest commandment.

But the second is much like it. Taking a quotation from the book of Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18), Jesus says that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. Just as we love our own bodies and our own lives, we are to love our neighbor. We are to love our neighbor because it is the physical manifestation of our love for God. If God, who is love itself, pours out that love on us, then we too must pour out that love on one another. As St. John says in his first letter, we cannot love God whom we have not seen if we do not love our brothers and sisters, whom we do see every day. Love of God, neighbor and self are all one package, all bound up together and made possible because of the love God has poured out on us.

As I said, the scribe asked the question about which law was the greatest for pretty much academic reasons. Most people when asked that question would have stopped at Jesus first response, since the command to love God with all one's heart, soul and strength was so well known. That said, and having heard Jesus' response, he is clearly impressed with Jesus answer, having seen it as creative and an improvement on what he may have heard thousands of times before. He is so impressed with Jesus' response, in fact, that it leads him to reiterate it in a kind of profession of faith. He sees that God's love is the center of everything we do and are. God is the love that fills our heart. God is the beauty that enlivens our mind. God is the life that animates our soul. God is the way that leads to our strength. The Lord our God is Lord alone. He is God; we are not.

And now it is Jesus who is impressed with the answer of the Scribe. Having heard his profession of faith, spontaneously pronounced by this man who knew the whole of the law, he tells the Scribe that he is not far from the Kingdom of God. The Scribe has moved beyond mere knowledge and understanding to faith. This is no longer a mere academic exercise for him; it is a statement of belief and a response to God's love. The love of God has transformed him and his theology has moved from his head to his heart.

He is not far from the kingdom of God, but he's not there yet. As consoling as Jesus' congratulatory statement was for him, there was still an element of challenge in it. The Scribe is still on the way to the Kingdom. What he lacks is what Jesus has been saying throughout the Gospel all this liturgical year. He has to sell his possessions and give to the poor, then come follow Jesus. He has to accept the Kingdom like a little child. He has to take up his cross and follow the Lord.

We too are still on the way, aren't we? As we approach the end of this liturgical year, it is time for us to look back and see how far we are from the Kingdom of God. Have we come to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength? Or do we still love distractions more than we love the One who made us for himself? Have we let go of the things we possess too tightly and followed Christ, or is letting go something we have not yet accomplished? Have we accepted the Kingdom of God like a little child; unquestioningly, and with total dependence on God, or do we still think we're God in some ways? Have we taken up our crosses, or are they still there waiting for us? How near are we to the Kingdom of God?

Because the Kingdom of God is our greatest goal, brothers and sisters in Christ. And that has been on our liturgical minds a lot in these past days. On Wednesday, we celebrated the solemnity of all the saints, who through faithfulness to God and total dependence on Him have already entered into the heavenly reward. On Thursday, we remembered the souls of all the faithful departed; those who are still on the journey but have passed from this life. These still are working out their salvation in what we call Purgatory. But all of us are members of the Communion of Saints. The Church teaches that the Communion of Saints is made up of all of the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven. We are all united by our common goal: the Kingdom of God.

And the way to reach our goal sounds so very simple. We must let go of this life and cling to the love of God. We must remember that He is God and we are not. But that's hard for us, isn't it? The process of entering the Kingdom of God is really a process of dying, which can be quit
e painful. It is a process of dying to self that begins at baptism, and ends when we get there, a process that takes us through life and death, and perhaps Purgatory, but which always ends in the Kingdom because that is the promise that God makes to all of those who believe in Him.

The best way to get started, or re-started on that journey is to pray every day as you leave your house: You are God; I am not.

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