(See the readings for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Nov. 4, 2018)
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says to the unnamed scribe.
Jesus has been proclaiming the kingdom of God from the beginning of his public ministry. In this encounter, the scribe had asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment.
Jesus responds by quoting the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy: “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.”
This law is the basis and foundation of all others. In answering the scribe’s question, Jesus adds: “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
When the scribe affirms Jesus’ answer to his question, Jesus says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
The kingdom of God is the state where God’s reign is recognized and lived. In this kingdom, there is only one Lord, one King – that is God. There is no other. No one is Lord but God. Hence the first commandment is loving the Lord God.
When we look at the language used, we come to realize the depth involved in living this commandment. Perhaps when we think of human beings who are in positions of authority, we might use terms of respect (given because of a person’s position) or acknowledgement (recognizing a person as a legitimate authority). While these views are generally truthful and worthwhile, they are not what Jesus is talking about. He goes much, much further than these descriptions. He speaks the language of love.
He begins with the fact that God is one and there is no other. He alone is King, and no one else can claim this role or title. Proclaiming God as King happens when we live our lives fully aware of and attentive to the Lord we serve.
The relationship is one of love, a love that is in no way superficial. It is not the love of a possession, it is not a love of “social” friends, it is not the love of “love ya.” It is a love that entails a commitment and a relationship. Jesus says it involves “all” our heart, soul, mind and strength. Everything we are and have are gifts from the Lord God, given in love.
He loves us and offers us freedom to love him in return. He does not force his love on us; rather, he loves. The relationship, however, can not move forward until we recognize him and return that love.
Rooting our lives in him and his love keeps us faithful to that command. Hence the command is not something we do once and it is fulfilled. Rather, it is a lifelong, day-by-day turning to the Lord and away from anything that seeks to rule us. Far from looking for a mere affirmation of God, Jesus is calling us to love him in the very concrete and practical aspects of our lives.
We know there are 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, approximately 365 days in a year. If my math is correct, that adds up to 1,440 minutes in a day, 10,080 minutes in a week and 3,679,200 minutes in a year. How much of this time do we spend in prayer and worship?
If our prayer time is Mass on Sunday, then that is approximately 60 minutes of the 10,080 we have each week –in other words, about 0.6% of the week.
If we spent that amount of time with our spouse, our marriage would not stay healthy for very long. Relationships demand attention if it they are to grow.
Such is the case with our relationship with God. If we are to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, he has to be the center of our lives. Of course, the quality of our relationship with him is not based solely on the quantity of our prayer time. Nonetheless, we need to invest our attention and commitment in order for our bond with him to develop.
Only after Jesus states the first commandment does he move to the second, the love of neighbor. This love rests on and flows from the love of God.
When St. Luke cites this encounter, Jesus says, “The second is like the first.” Sometimes this is interpreted as the second is the same as the first. However, Jesus instead says that it is “like” the first, meaning that is important and necessary. At the same time, it does not replace the first.
Jesus then goes on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that our love of neighbor means love of everyone, everywhere.
When we ponder this command, we start to realize the challenges that it entails. Can we love someone who has hurt us or a loved one? Can we love someone who does not agree with us? Can we love someone who represents everything we abhor? If we try to do that in isolation from the God of love, it seems to be impossible. Yet if the love of God is present in our lives, then all things are possible.
The two-fold command of love is the foundation of the kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us the way of love by living this two-fold command in his life. We often hear from the Gospels that Jesus spends time in prayer — with his disciples, in the synagogue, in deserted places to be alone with his Father. He speaks about God, reflects on his law and discusses God’s way with his apostles, his disciples, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes and the crowds that come to see him.
His compassion and love of neighbor is seen not only in this, but in the miracles he performs, the words of solace that he offers and the kind acts he does towards those he encounters, especially the poor, the sick, the outcast, the widows and “the sinners and prostitutes.” Thus he can say without boasting or pride: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
A few days ago we celebrated the solemnity of All Saints. We recall all those who have gone before us who lived the two-fold law of love. Through Jesus and these saints, we are reminded that the law of love is not a nice idea – it is a concrete way of life that continues to be lived out by the faithful.
It is real. It is visible. It is life-giving.
Through these witnesses of divine love, we are inspired and motivated to live that law of love in our lives. Doing so, we can hear Jesus say to us, as he did to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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