Sunday, November 05, 2006

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Of Resolutions, Commandments and the Power of God

Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; Hebrew 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34

By now many of us will have read, listened to, or otherwise heard about our President’s speech for the opening of Parliament on Thursday. I myself read it off the internet yesterday and was suitably impressed. The speech is a model of clarity of thought and brevity of expression. In just a few pages, it describes the key challenges we face at this point in our nation’s history and the steps we must take to meet them.

It is not my intention to discuss here the points raised in that most impressive speech. That is probably not what a homily is for. Nor do I have the expertise to do so. But there is a general observation that one might make about the speech. It is, from beginning to end, an expression of resolve. It begins by referring to how, when Singapore was thrust into independence forty-one years ago, we resolved to succeed. And it ends with the phrase: let us resolve… Also, it is really quite remarkable, how often words such as we must…, we will… and we need to… occur in the text. The speech is, quite plainly, filled with imperatives. It gives us a list of crucially important things that we, as individuals and as a nation, need to do.

What seems less obvious, however, is how and from where we are to find the inspiration and the energy to do the things that need to be done, apart from the need to survive in a rapidly changing world.

You will probably be wondering, at this point, why I seem to be skating on thin ice. Of what possible relevance is all this to our liturgy this morning?

Consider our readings. What we are presented with today is something that we all know like the back of our hands – perhaps even better. The greatest commandment or commandments of our faith: 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 must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.

We might pause for a moment, however, to become aware of our spontaneous reaction to these words. We’ve heard them often enough. How do we receive them today? Is it not likely that some, if not many, among us will receive them in much the same fashion as some might receive the President’s speech: simply as a list of things for us to do, relying upon little more than the strength of our own resolve, considerable though that may be? They are, after all, commandments aren’t they? You shall love… God… You must love your neighbour…

And yet, as a much-revered older priest remarked the other day: you can’t command love. Of course, we may do that with children sometimes. Do you love me? We might ask them. Or we might even tell them: You must love so and so… But as the years go by and children become adults, don’t we all somehow come to realize the truth? Love can only be freely given and freely received. Or it is not love. And attempts at forcing another to love are likely instead to produce stress or even resentment in any of its various expressions.

What then are we to make of the greatest commandment? Could the Lord really be trying to force us to love God and neighbour? Or, rather, could it be possible that a shift needs to be made in how we receive this commandment? Not unlike the shift, described in our second reading, from the Old to the New Covenant. Could it be that we need to listen to the greatest commandment again (and again) with ever new ears, new minds, new hearts?

We need first, for example, to notice how the commandment begins. Listen, O Israel, the Lord your God is the one Lord… Apart from the call to listen, the opening words don’t so much impose an obligation, as they offer a reminder. They don’t really command us to do something – that comes later – but rather do they remind us of who God is. It’s a very short statement, a very brief phrase: the Lord your God is the one Lord… But in it is found a wellspring of meaning and feeling. It evokes a whole history of relationship.

To truly listen to it is to remember what God has done for us in Jesus Christ the Lord. How God sent his only Son, to become for us the ideal high priest who won our salvation once and for all by offering himself. To truly open our hearts to these words is also to recall how Christ has been a saviour to us in our own personal histories. How, for example, God might have helped us to find a friend or a partner when we were lonely, a job when we were retrenched, healing when we were sick, meaning when we were lost and confused, faith when we were doubting, hope when we were close to despair…

To truly listen to these words – the Lord your God is the one Lord – is also to come to the same realization as the psalmist does, who sings today of who God is for him: not simply a law-giver, much less a law-enforcer, but my strength, my rock, my fortress, my saviour… my shield, my mighty help, my stronghold… the God who saves me. And, like the psalmist, isn’t it out of this profound realization of who God is for us that we might be moved to profess: I love you, Lord, my strength?

Sisters and brother, it is probably painfully true that our nation stands at a turning point in its history, that we are faced with many difficult challenges that require great strength of resolve. But, as Christians, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is not just what we need to do, important as that is, but also where we might find the strength to do it?

And isn’t this what our readings present to us today? Quite beyond the strength of our own resolve, aren’t we being offered an immense and irresistible power? By recalling and realizing anew who God is for us, aren’t we being offered access to the one Lord who alone is our strength, the Almighty and Ever-Compassionate One in whom is the sum of all the reasons why we must love?

Sisters and brothers how might we better open ourselves to this power today?

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