Almighty and eternal God, you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints: grant to us the same faith and power of love, that, as we rejoice in their triumphs, we may be sustained by their example and fellowship; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
God of glory, touch our lips with the fire of your Spirit, that we with all creation may rejoice to sing your praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now this is the commandment — the statutes and the ordinances — that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
1 Blessed are those whose way is pure, •
who walk in the law of the Lord.
2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies •
and seek him with their whole heart,
3 Those who do no wickedness, •
but walk in his ways.
4 You, O Lord, have charged •
that we should diligently keep your commandments.
5 O that my ways were made so direct •
that I might keep your statutes.
6 Then should I not be put to shame, •
because I have regard for all your commandments.
7 I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, •
when I have learned your righteous judgements.
8 I will keep your statutes; •
O forsake me not utterly.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Sermon on Fourth Sunday before Advent
We are told, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Why did no one dare? Why did everyone give up asking Jesus questions?
I am just the opposite, full of questions, questions that only my Lord and my God can answer. I am also jealous of that young man who replied to Jesus because he is not far from the kingdom of God, while I am lost in this desert of sorrows, this landscape of desolation. So, I can only question everything and expect that answers will come before my hope runs out, before I despair at the lack of any answers to my questions. After all, no one I know can give me the response I seek.
This is especially true at this time of year, when memories crowd around me, as the Church remembers those who have gone before, saints and sinners alike.
The saints cause us to falter on the way to our ownmost possibility. How can we behave like any of them, like Ignatius of Antioch who offered himself to the lions in Rome, like Thomas Aquinas who devoted his life to his summa theologica, like Oscar Romero who was shot to death as he celebrated mass? They went on in their own ways but stop us on ours – like that young man who talked with Jesus about the greatest commandment, that scribe whom Jesus judged to be near to the Kingdom.
When we look at ourselves, we are only filled with doubt, with questions about reaching that Kingdom. Questions which those around Jesus never asked. Questions which our contemporaries will never raise. However, here we are with those pointed interrogatives bristling everywhere.
Do we dare to ask those prickly enquiries? Do we approach Jesus in our doubting confidence to ask about the coming of the Kingdom? Are we as wise as that fellow was who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment?
I often come back to what Jesus says to this scribe,
‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
Here is the beginning of all theology. First there is God, then there are people. These two commandments to love concentrate our attention on the two focal points of life as we know it. The scribe, like us, must live a moral life, amongst our fellow human beings for their sake, not just our own. But we can love our neighbour only because we have a love greater than all creation, because we love God.
That love transforms all life, and so we can appreciate ourselves and our fellows. I know that my world is transformed when I love. When my beloved enters the room, everything changes. I have an inner strength which when I am alone and afraid, when I am without love, is impossible. When I realise that my beloved is with me, literally and metaphorically, when holding my hand or merely at the forefront of my mind, then I am a new being. We can all understand how the creation is vitalised when we love God, that beyond which nothing can be conceived, when I love God the ultimate cause of all things. The fact is: when I love God I am invincible, nothing can harm me and I can harm no one.
I have been reading a novel lately – a murder mystery naturally – and one of the characters says that when someone is religious, when he loves God, then his actions are good and right. It is only when there is hate that evil events can take place in life. Hatred disfigures everything – nothing appears as it is. The kindness shown to others when viewed through through hate is evaluated as weakness, and the distortion continues throughout every virtuous action we might accomplish. All is diminished and demeaned and the world is dark, a place without grace and pity, a place where no one really wants to dwell. However, even that seemingly dark place can be transformed by that love religion offers that same love – the love of God and of neighbour. The world can become a place we desire to dwell because of our engagement with each other and beyond. This is the symbolic life, where the lived world becomes greater than the sum of its parts, its meaning is outside of time and space, and that symbolic life is where we want, and need, to dwell.
No longer do we escape into other worlds, worlds characterised by fantasy or denial, but the two commandments validate the whole of our lives. We expect the dark night will give way, at some time, to a bright dawn of which we sing later on in the year, at the beginning of the church’s new year.
Where there is love, there is light. No darkness in true love. Everything is illuminated with care, with kindness. This is the world Jesus talks about. It has nothing to do with the tax man or riches. Instead the tax man becomes our companion and we distribute riches to all in need.
The great prize is that innocent love of neighbour which arises from the love of God. The richest of gifts is the zealous love of God which focuses beyond the horizons of the world as we experience it here and now in the cramped conditions of human frailty. And we are to distribute the prizes to all and sundry without prejudice, without any agenda. When we give this gift away, when we love as Christ loves us, then we know the love of God. That love which makes us the object of love and which concentrates on God. That love is an end in itself and like the philosopher’s moral action is sought for no other reason than it should be so.
Jesus is talking about something we all know deep within our hearts, at the base of our lives, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Jesus wants to be asked questions about life.
However, we must dare to do so. Do we dare like that scribe to ask Jesus about the commandment which is first of all? Do we dare to talk about it with one another? If we don’t dare, we are silent – we become that silent majority of the politicians which they say condones all they do in our name. Let us dare to be a vocal majority, moving all to a brighter world where hearts are open and horizons infinite, a world where there need be no barbed wire at the borders, just a warming cup of tea and a heartfelt welcome into a very brave, new world.