31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
What Comes Before The First...
What Comes Before The First...
Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 17:2-4,47,51; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34
Picture: cc rachel
Sisters and brothers, do you know what it feels like to join a conversation that has already begun? Or to start watching a film that has already been running for some time? It can feel quite frustrating, right? Especially if you’ve missed an important part of the story. However hard you try, you just can’t seem to figure out what exactly is going on. Worse still, you may even get the wrong idea. You may actually miss the whole point. Sometimes with embarrassing results.
Consider, for example, a primary school teacher who happens to witness what looks like a blatant act of bullying. One student punches another in the stomach. Pow! And the victim doubles over and cries out in pain. Quite understandably, the teacher goes ballistic. Without seeking any explanation, he grabs the bully and hauls him to the discipline mistress’ office. Only to find out, after getting the whole story, that the boy wasn’t actually beating up his friend. The two had spent the previous evening watching a wrestling match on TV, and were simply reenacting what they had seen. What the teacher saw wasn’t a case of bullying after all. Like the so-called sport of professional wrestling, it was all make-believe. Play-acting. Which the poor teacher would have realised if he had arrived on the scene a little earlier. Or, having arrived late, if he had only taken the time to find out what had happened before the punch was thrown.
Sometimes, finding out what happened earlier can make all the difference. And this is a useful lesson to keep in mind, especially on this 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Today, our Mass readings remind us of something that we all know very well: the two greatest, most important, commandments of the Law. We know that these two commandments require us, respectively, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Perhaps we’re so familiar with these requirements of the Law that we don’t think about them very much. But isn’t it true that when we do stop to reflect, even for a brief moment, we find something very puzzling? What’s puzzling is how someone can actually be commanded to love. Don’t you find this difficult to understand? Of course, people can be commanded to do many things. To pay COE and ERP charges, for example. Or to cross roads only at pedestrian crossings. Or not to carry durians or chew gum in MRT stations. And we know too that commands can even be changed. At one time, people can be commanded to have no more than two children. And, at a later time, to have more. All this is possible. And quite understandable. But can the same be said for love? Is it really possible to command someone to love?
True love is, after all, freely given and freely received. Or it isn’t love. What would you say, for example, if you had a young daughter, and she were to come home one day and declare that her boyfriend was forcing her to love him? Very likely you would react as that primary school teacher reacted. You’d go ballistic. You’d confront the bully. Give him a piece of your mind. Or worse…
Unlike taxes and birth-control, love cannot be commanded in the same way. If you try to do it, you’ll make yourself a bully. Or an abuser. Or even a rapist.
So what does all this make God? Is God a bully? It would seem so, wouldn’t it? If we were to consider nothing else except the commandment to love. Unless, of course, the commandment is not the whole story. Unless, like the primary school teacher, we are arriving on the scene in the middle of the action. Something else has gone before. Something crucially important. We get a hint of just what this something is in the first reading. Here, not only are the people of Israel given the commandment to love God, they are also given a reason to do so. The reason comes in the form of a promise: If you fear the Lord your God all the days of your life and if you keep all his laws and commandments which I lay on you, you will have a long life, you and your son and your grandson. In other words, keeping the commandments is the way to become truly happy.
But that’s not all. If it were, the people would still have little motivation to love God. Little reason to trust that God would keep God’s promise. What makes God worthy of trust is, of course, what had happened even earlier. As you know, before giving the people the commandments, God had freed them from slavery in Egypt. Once they were nobodies. Scattered individuals without a homeland. But God had gathered them and was making them into one nation. A people called and chosen to be God’s very own. And God was even giving them a place to call home. A land where milk and honey flow.
Seen in this context, God’s command to love begins to look very different. Instead of an act of bullying or extortion, it is a pathway to freedom. A recipe for health and happiness. And keeping God’s Law begins to look different too. No longer is it something that people do just to keep a grumpy God from getting angry. Or to manipulate a greedy God into giving them what they want. Rather, keeping the commandments becomes an act of gratitude for all the good that God has done and continues to do on their behalf. An expression of fidelity and loyalty to Someone who has proven himself worthy of trust.
But even this, sisters and brothers, is still not quite the whole story. At least not for us. For us Christians, there is something even more important. Something without which the story would never arrive at its happy ending. For even though we may know that keeping the commandments is the way to true happiness and lasting freedom, how many of us find it easy to love? How many of us are able to do it on the strength of our own efforts. For, as the first letter of John reminds us, our love must be not just words or mere talk, but something active and genuine (1 John 3:18). Our love needs to be expressed in deeds. Such as making quality time for prayer, even in the midst of a busy schedule. Or showing concern for the less fortunate among us, or those for whom we have some responsibility. Or being patient with people we find irritating. Or simply caring for our own bodies, by getting enough rest and relaxation, and by watching what we eat.
Sisters and brothers, how many of us find it easy to do all this? Do we not often feel rather more like the many priests mentioned in the second reading? The priests under the former covenant, who have to offer sacrifices everyday for their own sins and for the sins of the people. And even then are unable to perfect themselves, let alone lead others to perfection. Like these priests, we too receive painful reminders of our own weakness everyday. We know the good, but we are unable to do it. We know the bad, but we are unable to avoid it. Thankfully, in our weakness, God makes us a new promise of help. A promise that God fulfils in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus, who, as the second reading reminds us, offered himself once and for all. Laying down his life for us on the Cross. And taking it up again, so as to live for ever to intercede for all who come to God through him.
It is only in and through this Jesus that we find the possibility of keeping God’s commands. It is only by remembering and reenacting his sacrifice–as we are doing at this and at every Mass–that we receive the power that we need to truly love God and our neighbour. And, in so doing, to find true happiness and lasting freedom.
As with any conversation, it’s very difficult to understand, let alone to live out, God’s love commandment, without having experienced what has gone before. Sisters and brothers, how might we gain a deeper appreciation of God’s abiding love for us in Christ Jesus today?