Virtuous acts are seldom accompanied
A rose is a rose; a feeling is just a feeling. People often confess their being impatient and so experience being unvirtuous. I ask them if they acted-out their impatience by some words or deeds. Usually they tell me “No!”, they just tapped their foot or steamed under their collars. I recently had a three hour delay at an airport. When we finally got seated and were ready to take off, the flight attendant thanked us several times for our patience. Several of us laughed, because we didn’t feel very virtuously patient. What the attendant was really saying was that Delta Airlines was glad we didn’t argue or throw something or break into the place where they keep those tiny little packages of peanuts.
We might find it difficult to be forgiving, because we still have hurt feelings. Loving is manifested in deeds not merely words and often those deeds of washing toilets or cooking dinner are not done with warm fuzzy emotions. We would love feeling virtuous, though we seldom do. We do the virtuous things and the doing just might be the virtue itself.
Eventually all children will begin asking their parents the big questions, “why”, or “how come”. A young lad, when told by his mother to go and wash his hands, asked “why?”. She told him, “because of germs.” He was heard to say on his way to the sink, “Santa Claus, Jesus, and germs, that’s all they talk about and I’ve never seen any of them”.
We hear today, in the First Reading, the beginning of Moses’ telling the people of Israel about their new ways of relating with God. The first five chapters of this book of Deuteronomy have been a review of the history of how God had formed them into the nation of Israel. What we hear today is Moses’ laying down the over-all spirit necessary for the people to be able to live the laws and customs which God will specify beginning six chapters later.
The last four verses of this chapter predict that the children will eventually ask the big question about why they must keep these laws and customs. Moses again gives a brief historical reason which is the reality of the first Passover. Then Moses says that the keeping will make for happiness forever in the land they had received after their being freed from slavery in Egypt.
We hear words in our First Reading such as “long-life, grow and prosper”. There are reasons to keep the laws and there are self-inflicted consequences from not observing the customs. These laws are meant to keep all the hearers together and united with their Saving God. If they would keep the laws, the laws would keep them safe and available to the reception of even more life, growth, prosperity and love.
So “why?” The people of Israel then, and we now, are encouraged to reverence the ways God desires life to be received and expressed. It is very good for the little lad to wash his hands. It is good for his own health and future enjoyment of dinner and his days. At the time, he does not think so, but his mother’s love for him does know what is good for him. He has to trust her ways as a way of trusting her love for him.
The spirituality or relationship with this God is centered in thankful appreciation for life. This is not a business in which we work and have an Employee’s Handbook, where we find out what we have to do and what we can get away with. If the relationship with God is not primary, then fearful adherence will make for a burdensome existence. The big question is not so much “why”, but “how” do we love God. This “first” commandment can seem to be overwhelming and meant to inferioriate or diminish the possibilities of our being in a proper relationship with the awesome One.
The Gospel has a bit of the “question and answer” theme to it. The scribe is asking, not testing Jesus. The big question is present. The hidden question is about whether Jesus holds tightly to the Jewish tradition of Moses - that there is but “one God”. This being said, Jesus outlines what’s expected now, considering that there is this One God.
After our listening to the string of requirements, about loving this One God with all ones mind, heart, soul, and strength, we are left to ponder. What does that mean to love God? If we could do this, then it would not appear to be as demanding as that of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Loving God, feeling love for God, it might be easier to fear God, that seems more natural. Fear is a good motivator and can keep us in line.
Loving our neighbor is easy when we like our neighbor or if by love we mean not hurting them or respecting boundaries. The people of Israel were given laws of great exactness and explicitness. There were rules for every occasion and one would know where she or he stood in relationship with the “terrible and One God”. Jesus seems to leave it to us to figure out who is the neighbor and how to love them. Jesus knows well that we too know well the invitation to love. The truth really is that we do know, but we do not like to think about it too much. We will never know exactly how we are doing and perhaps this is the important invitation to faith. Loving God is not having emotional or bodily reactions. Loving the One God is allowing that God to love this one person, who I am and receiving both me and God’s love as one act.
Just an observation before I end this. It seems that those who receive themselves gratefully, as loved of God and loved by others, are more free to love others as they love themselves. They do not seem to want to argue about just exactly what does “neighbor” mean, or “all” , or “mind”, “soul”, “strength”, and “heart”. They seem to receive their being loved easily and to share that easily with “those others”, the “neighbor”. The challenge of this Gospel story and the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is whether we can let go of the necessity for reasonable answers to our big questions. What is a necessity is for us to get on with living the Eucharist and all it means for us and our neighbors. So now, go wash your hands.
“You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in Your presence, O Lord.” Ps. 16, 11
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