Homily: First Things First


I sort of feel the need to apologize for not posting my All Saints’ Homily. Not to the point of *actually posting* my All Saints’ Homily, obviously. But you’ll just have get by. It was a busy week. 

Also, while I don’t usually comment specifically on the image I search the internet to find for the header to my posts, this one was the trifecta: First, it fit the theme of the post. Second, it references the book I mention, was was very important to the path of my life (The Seven Habits). And Third, it’s from the Art of Manliness blog, which is awesome in its crusade to promote authentic, healthy, virtuous masculinity. 

What is the most important thing? If you had to sum up what human life is about—what should be at the core of the well-lived life—what is that? Better question: Is that how you live your life? Do you make your choices every day in pursuit of the most important thing? Or is something else grabbing the focus? Do you just live from urgency to urgency? Are you carving out the time and priority to say ‘no’ to lesser things, even when they’re good things, so you can focus your life on developing the best, the most important thing; about being a human person; about being you?

Maybe your life is just going from urgency to urgency—putting out fires, but not really making much progress. Henry David Thoreau is often quoted as saying, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and die with their song still inside them.” How does that happen? Because they don’t put first things first.

The most important book in my own personal life has been “Seven Habits of Highly Image result for seven habits of highly effective peopleEffective People,” by the late Stephen Covey. It’s not that it’s more important than the bible; but if I hadn’t read the Seven Habits when it was the right book at the right time for me, I wouldn’t have had the conversion experience, the renewal of faith, and the re-organization of my life, to make the bible and my Catholic faith important to me. Stephen Covey wasn’t Catholic, he was a Mormon, but what was important was how he integrated the importance of God and faith into the fabric of the well-ordered and well-lived life. “Putting first things first” is in the top three of the seven habits of highly effective people. I mentioned this week during the mass of obligation [nudge, nudge] for All Saints’ Day that November is like the unofficial season of the last things (Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell). There’s no better way to prepare for the last things than to contemplate the two most important questions: (1) What is the most important thing; and (2) Am I being proactive about putting and keeping that most important thing at the core of my life and my choices?

In our Gospel reading, one of the scribes asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Of course, we know by faith that Jesus is God, and so what God says is the most important thing, is probably something we should pay attention to. So what does Jesus, the divine and only begotten Son of God, say is the most important thing? “Jesus replied, ‘the first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

This is a brilliant answer (of course), but we have to unpack it to see why. The Jews had 613 precepts of the Law of Moses, which expanded on the Ten Commandments. It was common in Jesus’ time to measure up a rabbi by how he prioritized and summarized the law succinctly. So the scribe asks Jesus how he reads the law: what is the essence of the law? Most of us, perhaps if we were asked what the most important commandment of the Law was, might have said the First Commandment: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods before Me.” And that would be a pretty solid answer. If you break any commandment, you also break the first one, because you put something else ahead of perfect obedience and reverence to God in your life.

But Jesus doesn’t draw from the moral tradition of Jewish Law: he draws from the liturgical tradition. Every Jew prayed morning and evening prayer, and these prayers included the Shema, which is Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which starts with the words “Shema, Israel,” (“Hear, O Israel!”), Related imagewhich happens to also be our first reading for today. Every Jew knew this passage by heart, like the way all Christians know Matthew 6:9-13 by heart. That’s the Our Father, which is part of the Church’s morning and evening prayer.

The Shema identifies three ways to love God: with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength/might. And Jesus adds another one: and with all your mind.

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart. God must be the first love of our heart, second to none. Anything else we love, is because it is an expression of God’s love, and in obedience to God’s love. The heart is the seat of the human will and of the human emotions. So we set our will to choose to remain steadfast in our love of God above all things. Love has an emotional component, yes. But love is primarily a function of the will. Love—and faithfulness—is a choice. Love the Lord your God with all your heart.

Love the Lord your God with all of your soul. Soul here is a translation (through the Greek: psyche) of the Hebrew word nephesh, which means life.

From Wikipedia (because I was curious): Nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ‬ nép̄eš) is a Biblical Hebrew word which refers to the aspects of sentience, and human beings and other animals are both described as having nephesh. Plants, as an example of live organisms, are not referred in the Bible as having nephesh. The term נפש‬ is literally “soul”, although it is commonly rendered as “life” in English translations. A view is that rather than having a nephesh, a sentient creation of God is a nephesh. In Genesis 2:7 the text is that Adam was not given a nephesh but “became a living nephesh.” Nephesh then is better understood as person.

The soul is the unifying and animating principle of your body. Your soul is the spiritual component that defines your body and holds it together as a living body, and gives you life. Not just that, but sentient life, human life. You are to use all of the faculties of your human nature in service of (and in pursuit of) your first love, your love of God. Love the Lord your God with all of your soul.

Love the Lord your God with all of your strength. The Greek word there means all your might, your effort. So this is something that requires a great deal of effort, energy, endurance, discipline. It requires participation. It’s not passive, like a spectator, sitting in the nose-bleed seats (in the back pews). You actually have to struggle and strive to enter through the narrow gate; you have to commit and engage. You have to dedicate to God, in your love of Him, all your energy, intention, and power. Love the Lord your God with all of your strength.

All three of those elements are in Deuteronomy, but Jesus adds a fourth:

Love the Lord your God with all of your mind. The Greek word here means our understanding, our thoughts. Jesus adds this element of loving God with the intellect, with reason, with truth, of loving God with the mind. Something new is being required, to meditate, to contemplate, to understand, and to teach the gospel. Be able to articulate and explain and share your faith in the gospel, your love of God. Love the Lord your God with all your mind.

This, Jesus says, clearly, is the most important thing. And Jesus is perfect, the Word of God. So we (literally) can take it as gospel truth, that the most important thing that we need to have at the forefront of every moment and every choice, is “THE LORD our God is Lord alone! You shall love THE LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Jesus then couples that first command, from Deuteronomy, with a second, from Leviticus. “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” What does that mean, this second commandment? First we have to consider what it means to love yourself.

You acknowledge that you want what is good, even if you don’t exactly deserve it. You want to be shown mercy and leniency. You want things to work out in your favor. Most of all, you want God’s mercy, and to spend eternity in God’s presence, not excluded from it. Not because you’re perfect, you make mistakes, but you’re more than your mistakes, and you want others, and God, to look past those mistakes, and to love you for who you are. You want a minimum of suffering, and a maximum of happiness. Ok then. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. All that good stuff—you need to want that for your neighbor! Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and he responded with the story of the Good Samaritan: Everyone is your neighbor, especially those in need, those who are most vulnerable. And even more difficult, he says to love your enemies and your persecutors (and especially the ones who really get on your nerves…)

In Christianity, there’s something even greater going on here—because everyone who is baptized is a temple of God (and even those who are not baptized are still loved by God, and made in His image). So Jesus, the image and presence of God, is in us, and in our neighbor. In Christ, these two most important commandments are folded over into one, because the holy worship of God inspires us to serve others, and holy service of others inspires us to worship God! The first commandment—to love God—we do so by serving our neighbor. And the second commandment—to love our neighbor—in doing so, we serve God. St. John teaches us in his first letter (1 John 4:20), “If anyone says that he loves God while he hates his brother, he’s a liar! For if he hates his brother, whom he can see, how can he love God, whom he cannot see?

If your worship of God in church doesn’t send you to serve others… you have to ask… is it then really the worship that God is asking of you? It may be beautiful and reverent. It may fit the rubrics of Sacred Tradition. But if it’s not making you a holier, more patient, more generous, more virtuous person, be skeptical.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Put first things first. This should be first, at the heart, of every choice, every day. This is the most important thing.

Horizontal Rule Cross