Sometimes Jesus seems a bit deaf. When people ask Him about fasting, rituals, family respect, punishing an adulteress, divorce, paying taxes, being born again, and the like, or when they show a morbid curiosity about His miracles or authority, or the end of time, or life after death, He rarely answers them plainly. Like a deaf old man, He often answers another question altogether, or asks one himself, or stays silent, or is plain mysterious (e.g. Mt 8:29; 9:14-15; 12:38-42,46-50; 15:1-3; 16:1-4; 21:23-27; 22:15-28; 24:3-8; 26:62-63; 27:11-14; Mk 2:1-11; 10:2-6; 12:13-24; Lk 2:48-49; 20:1-4; Jn 3:4-5; 4:7-38; 5:10-25; 6:25-34; 8:1-59; 18:22-23,33-34).
In our own lives, too, God can sometimes seem rather hard of hearing! Yet, as we grow up in faith, and get enough perspective to look back at God’s providence in our lives, we often realise that God gives us the answers we need rather than the ones we first wanted.
Something like this seems to be going on today. A Scribe (or canon lawyer) asks Jesus to identify the most important commandment of all (Mk 12:28-34). Jesus doesn’t side-step the question this time; He answers head-on. But He gives His interrogator two commandments. This reminds me of the Psalmist who says: “For God has said only one thing: only two do I know; that to God alone belongs power; and to you alone, Lord, love; and that you repay each man according to his deeds.” (Ps 62:11-12) Perhaps it’s not Jesus’s hearing at fault so much as His maths.
So why does the Scribe who asked for one great commandment get two for the price of one? Surely loving God above all else is the stand-out candidate for Commandment of the Year?
Well, there are many answers one might give to this. You might say loving God and neighbour are two sides of the one coin. We obey the love commandment by worshipping God above all, but also by doing good things for others. The Father of the Church, Basil the Great, thought we could only love our fellow human beings, especially strangers and enemies, because we love God first; and we can only express our love of God fully by loving our neighbours who are the image of God. So the second commandment depends on, follows from and completes the first. The Lord is asked for one overarching commandment, and seems to give two, but really the two are inseparably one.
Christians ever since have pondered this double-commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church observes that “All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures – their truth, their goodness, and their beauty – all reflect the infinite perfection of God.” (§41) St Thomas Aquinas taught that the truth, goodness and beauty of creation points us to and prepares us for knowing our Creator; to dishonour the creature would be to fail in reverence for the Creator.
John the Evangelist once wrote a letter precisely on this matter. “Beloved,” he said, “let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love, does not know God: for God is love… Anyone who says, ‘I love God’ while hating his brother is a liar… For this is his commandment: that he who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 Jn ch. 4) To speak untruthfully with or about our neighbour is to deny the One who is Truth itself; to act badly with or towards our fellows is to contradict the One who is Goodness itself; and to crush the beauty of creatures and creation is to dishonour the One who is Beauty itself.
So the commandment to love God entails love of neighbour. But observing the second commandment also leads us back to God. Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger or care for the homeless we do these things for Him (Mt 25:36-40). So complete is His identification with humanity in the Incarnation and Redemption that their sufferings become His own, and their relief also. And so it is that St Basil can say that “in keeping the first commandment one also keeps the second, and through keeping the second one returns again to the first.”
The God who prompts in us deeper questions than those that first surface for us, and answers them with deeper answers than first appeal to us, asks above all that we love.
“Love, and do as you please,” St Augustine once dangerously put it, knowing full well that could be taken as ‘anything goes’. But a love of neighbour purified and ordered by love of God, and a love of God expressed by charity towards neighbours, that is the sort of love that will rightly guide any soul. “A father chastises a boy, while a kidnapper caresses him,” Augustine observes. “Offered a choice between blows and caresses, who would not choose the caresses and avoid the blows? But when you consider the people who give them, you realise that it is [sometimes] love that corrects, [sometimes] wickedness that caresses. So I insist on this: human actions can only be understood by their root in [true] love.”
Which brings me to the recent Synod I attended in Rome. The Pope convoked a group of young people and some experts in youth ministry along with bishops from every nation on earth to consider the matter of “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment”. The young people spoke with enthusiasm about their love of God, creation, humanity. The bishops listened and responded with the call to know the God of love who is Christ.
When young people express their passion for human rights and for ecology today, we should realise that, for us Christians, everything and everyone in creation reflects the God of Truth, Goodness and Beauty; to love humanity and its common home is to love the Creator of them both. And so to all young people the Synod said: we have heard your hopes and concerns; we are excited by your gifts and aspirations; we sympathise with your difficulties and want to help. We are sorry for the times Church people have let you down; but Christ never lets us down. So never give up on Christ who never gives up on you! Never give up on the Church who with Christ’s help you can make more faithful! Never give up on the world that with Christ and the Church you can make a better place!
It was John, the baby apostle, the teenager turned missionary disciple and visionary evangelist, who taught the world in his writings that ‘God is love’, that ‘God so loved the world He gave His only Son’, and that ‘he who loves God must love his brother also’ (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:7-21). The young man who leaned on Jesus’s breast at the Last Supper and was nicknamed ‘the beloved disciple’ was the one to best pass on Jesus’ love song for God and humanity.
In this week of “All Saints” we pray that God may grant our young people – and those of us a little older who care for them – moments of encounter, inspiration, mission and consolation such as the young John knew. With the love of Christ, young people can do great things!
This is the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass for the 31st Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney on 4 November 2018.