Finding that “Greatest Commandment”

If we think about it, the Ten Commandments were probably given as the first attempt to
simplify and prioritize the laws God had given, and the mere fact that we have
inherited them suggests two things to me.  First, we ought to know exactly what the Old Testament commandments were and what they require of us.  There’s a danger of becoming pharisaical about these laws insofar as we might get bogged down in the counting (more than 600!) and then become consumed with treating all of them as if they were of equal importance—allowing our lives to become consumed by minutiae but missing the larger picture about WHY these regulations exist, and WHAT they were trying to protect.
Second, we should know the New Testament’s moral advice and then, and only then, sift through all of it, Old and New, and come up with an answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus himself says some memorable things in the Gospels:

  • I am with you always (Mt. 28:20)
  • I will give you rest (Mt. 11:28)
  • I am the way, the truth, the      life (Jn. 14:6)
  • God so loved the world (Jn.      3:16)?
  • Go therefore and make disciples      (Mt. 28:19)
  • Love one another (Jn. 13:34)
  • Let the children come to me (Mk.      10:14)
  • Today you will be with me in paradise (Lk. 23:43)
  • Seek first the Reign of God (Mt. 7:7)

Other times, Jesus is simply taking an Old Testament saying and putting a fresh spin on it,
making it sound like it’s a new saying:

  • Man does not live by bread alone
    (Dt. 8:3; Mt. 4:4).
  • The poor will be with you always
    (Dt. 15:11; Mt. 26:11).
  • Love your neighbor as yourself
    (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:39).
  • Love God, love your neighbor—which
    brings us back to today’s reading.

For the past 4 years, I have had the privilege of meeting with people at our parish book
clubs.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I’m continually learning from others how to prioritize my life.  So often someone will say something that just cuts right to the heart of an issue, and their observation helps me sharpen my own spiritual focus.  It helps me get
clearer on my priorities, and others have the same experience, which is nothing
less than the power of community that makes Christ present to us.

The story is told of an American family in China that was forced to leave the country when
the Communists came to power. Because the ship was going to be loaded with passengers and their possessions, the family was told they could only take 150 pounds total with them.  It took them a day or two to sort through their belongings—some small rugs, carved masks, etc…things they knew they would never be able to replace at home.  When they arrived at the pier, the porter who was checking them in asked innocently, “Did you remember to weigh your children?” Suddenly, their priorities were clarified and they knew what was most important, what the right thing had to be.

The insights of our parishioners have helped me to see things differently about this parish
community.  I’ve learned that it’s easy to find good things to do because the world is full of hurt.  But if these good things we do aren’t helping us go where God is calling us, then they aren’t the right things to be doing.  So the question we need to keep asking ourselves is, “What is the right thing?”

  • Is it to have a full church for every Mass?
  • Is it to have our own church building?
  • Is it to have a lot of programs for young, old and in between?
  • Is it to share the gospel with the people who live in our neighborhood?
  • Is it to equip each other to be effective ministers of the Gospel?
  • Is it to provide food to the hungry?
  • Is it to gather in prayer for one another?

Can we name, in a short phrase or sentence what our parish understands its purpose to be? What is the one thing that we are called to do and be as a welcoming Catholic
parish?

From Jesus’ perspective, loving God and loving neighbor is the main thing, and the former
leads directly to the latter.  We can’t say we’re connected to God if we’re not connected to the people we meet.  In John’s Epistle, we are reminded rather pointedly that those who don’t love don’t even know God.

The Hebrew Scriptures themselves testify that we must do works of justice and not just do
good liturgy.  God never says, for example, “I don’t accept your works of justice and mercy because your liturgies are awful!”  What God does say again and again is, “I reject your liturgies because your sense of justice sucks!  Your sense of mercy sucks!”  (OK, I’m paraphrasing, but the message is legit.)  The best example for loving God and loving others comes in the example of Jesus.  Yes, he did spend time at praying—publicly at
Temple, and also privately in the wilderness–but he also devoted his life to his friends and to countless others who needed him, allowing his love of God to consume him.  His love of God led directly to his love for people.

The same can be said for others in history who have done the same,  people who were clear about their purpose as well as their love. These include Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, and countless others whose stories we don’t even know.  Their love for God was reflected in the way they loved their neighbors, a love that was so clear  that no one who knew them or heard about them doubted the sincerity of their love.

It’s that focus, that paying attention to doing the right thing that matters.  Everything, from helping teach an RCIA class to raking leaves on the church lawn on cleanup day can be either the right thing or the wrong thing.  It is the “intentional” part of the activity that is as important as the nature of the activity.  In other words, what we do is not nearly as important as how we do them. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbor.  Not only do the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments, but so does our future as a parish.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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