Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 31)

A few months ago a college student was telling me of her experience of life. She said she was feeling anxious and distracted. As she explained her situation, she noted that there were so many activities, responsibilities, commitments and contacts in her life that she was overwhelmed.

Her situation is not unique. Many people today, especially the youth and young adults, have similar experiences. It seems like there are multiple layers of responsibilities and expectations. Some of these are chosen, some are placed upon the person, some are real, some are more important, some less important.

In a different conversation, someone was speaking to me about the “unarticulated expectations” of social media and instant contact. This person was also feeling overwhelmed by “trying to keep up” with all this along with all their other obligations in life. Another person mentioned the lack of differentiation between work and home that was further exasperated by the COVID situation.

Still another person, this one a parent, was lamenting all the “movement” and “hectic” lifestyle of taking the children from one event to another in a seemingly constant motion. She summed up her situation as though she had “no time to think.”

These situations are not unique. They are different but one of the common threads could be described as “chaotic.” The feeling of being overwhelmed and directionless leads, in many of these cases, to anxiety and even fear.

Jesus lived 2,000 years ago. The pace of life in that age and culture was surely slower than it is today. However, the conveniences of life today such as electricity, technology, cars and machines to assist work and the advances in medicine were absent and daily life was laborious. The sources and stressors of life may have been different but the results would be similar. Jesus was born a homeless Jew in a town far away from his parents’ home. His life was threatened from the beginning.

After he grew to adulthood, he left his home, his source of livelihood, the comfort of a familiar place so as to gather people to himself and to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which from one perspective can be described as God’s vision or plan for creation and particularly for humanity.

It is this vision and the One who proclaims it that lifted people from fear, gave them relief from their burdens and provided them hope for this life and a direction to the eternal life he would provide.

Jesus’ proclamation has a way of cutting through the chaotic and complex situations of life providing direction, guidance and peace. This Sunday’s teaching on the Kingdom of God is one such example. One of the scribes asks him, “which is the greatest of all the commandments?” In later Jewish tradition (3rd century), the number of commandments in what Christians refer to as the Old Testament was fixed at 613.

In one stream of thought these all carried equal weight. In this mindset trying to observe all these would be overwhelming and easily lead to despair at the futility of the exercise. (St. Paul would eventually preach about this in terms of the multiplication of sin which associated with law the burden of which was broken by Jesus’ faithfulness to the Father.)

Jesus simply quotes the passage in Deuteronomy (called the schema from the Hebrew first word of the passage): “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He then couples this most basic but fundamental of all the laws with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” After the scribe affirms this teaching Jesus says to him: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

“Love of God” and “love of neighbor” are so basic that they underlie all the other commandments. Easy to remember. Easy to hold in our minds. Easy to use as a source for prioritizing all our multiple responsibilities. Easy to use as a navigation tool for our way through life.

That’s not to say that there are not challenges in loving God and neighbor but Jesus also sends the Spirit to dwell within us to help us keep these commandments. It also does not mean the responsibilities, activities, competing interests, and so forth, of life will go away but Jesus gives us a way to put them in their proper place and to assign them the proper import due them.

Many people seeking to live these two commandments as a basis for Christian life find not only relief from the anxieties of the contemporary world but peace and hope.

There is no question that we live in a complex world. Many of the advances in technology, communications and so forth — while many times good — do not necessarily simplify life as they claim. The hectic pace and anxieties of unrealistic expectations stir up discontent, restlessness and even in some cases fear.

Jesus breaks the bonds of these forces through his passion, death and resurrection. Today he gives us a way to live life focused on love; and this love orders everything else.

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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.