In a Nutshell

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

I have been asking myself recently, what is the point of a shortcut? So you can get to where you’re going quicker. If it’s about how little time you can afford to waste getting to where you want to go, I can think of a better and more effective solution. Start out earlier. But it’s not always possible. That means I have to get up earlier. That’s a non-starter. Or I have to give up some conveniences like taking a shower, or having coffee, or catching up with everyone in the world on Facebook. Nope, none of those are negotiable. But there can also be a lot going on where I’m coming from, and I can’t ever get away until the last minute. Well then, plan better. If it’s within your control, you can do something about it. If you want to blame Daylight Savings Time—which is only a plausible excuse in the spring—go ahead. It’s not like you’ve been living in a cave, and haven’t been hearing about it for weeks before it hits.

But we take shortcuts almost everywhere we can find them. If we want a good meal, and we can’t afford to waste our precious time chopping and sautéing, and marinating and grilling, and kneading and baking, we can always pick up whatever our little hearts desire at the grocery store or the fast food window. Or go to a restaurant and let someone else prepare it. And yes, that’s a shortcut, too. But not if you can’t cook anyway, so you’re actually making better use of your time and resources. Plus, you’re contributing to the economy. If we can prepare our tax returns with a computer app or an online service, that gives us more time and money to spend on Netflix. If we can lose weight with a pill, it’ll be worth all the aggravation we won’t have to spend on rearranging our already busy schedule, exercise equipment, and spandex. Some people think watching the movie version of a book, specifically a book they were required to read in school, gets them quicker to where they’re going. It’s a gamble, especially when you forget a character’s name and can only remember the actor who plays the part, and the dialogue takes a few liberties, and the screenwriter adds a few unnecessary and convoluted plot twists … and you hope your teacher hasn’t also seen the movie.

Now I am not against all shortcuts. I can do long division—learned it in school half a lifetime ago. But now that we have calculators on our phones, it’s a piece of cake figuring out a 20% tip, and then dividing up the total bill. Actually I have an app for that. I can purchase things conveniently online and get them delivered to my front door with the least amount of hassle. Sometimes I can also avoid shipping charges if it’s an option. And I have no problem ignoring the torrent of emails requesting feedback about how they met my needs. You see, there’s a reason I did not choose to interact with another human being when I made this purchase. But you’ll definitely hear from me if I’m not happy. So take what you can get. I also write my homilies on a laptop now, well, I have for the last 20 years. It’s easier to navigate between the lectionary readings, commentaries, and concordances online, and Google search when I’m in a bind.

But clearly, shortcuts are meant to make life easier, but not necessarily better. It’s one reason why we have high occupancy vehicle lanes, and lotteries, and emojis.

So when one of the scribes in today’s gospel reading asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?,” he was asking for a shortcut. Basically, what can I afford to ignore and still be confident I’m doing what God expects of me?

Jesus plays along. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.[1]  It was an acknowledgment that the Law of Moses could get a little cumbersome with 613 individual commandments, some of which only pertain to a specific time in history, which still brings the total to 271 commandments. The question has definitely been on the minds of many throughout Israel’s history. And today 26 of those commandments are applicable only in the land of Israel, further reducing the total to 245. But that’s still 245 commandments! Those of us who are not Jews have trouble with just the 10. So a shortcut would be a welcome convenience. The question did assume it can all be reduced to one commandment, but two isn’t bad. Not at all.

Now we know from experience that the more specific the commandment, the easier for us because it generally limits the possibility of misinterpretation. Elbows off the table. No texting during dinner. No shoes on the furniture. Be home no later than 11:00 PM. Do not feed the dog off your plate. You may not hit your sister. No food and drink on the living room couch. Please and thank you, and you do not use swear words ever. As long as you live under my roof, you will follow my rules. And those were the easy ones, none of which carried the penalty of incarceration or death. But the more general the commandment, the harder it can get applying it in specific situations. That’s why people argue after the fact. No one wants to be wrong. Just because the specific application is obvious to one party doesn’t mean it will be obvious to the other.

So the greatest commandment might potentially simplify the observance of the Law of Moses, or for us Christians, our following of Jesus. But since application of it in specific situations is open to interpretation, we can twist ourselves into knots arguing what does and what does not fulfill the commandment. Some will claim that the intent of the lawgiver is clearly broad, encompassing every possible application. While those who advocate a more limited application will claim the lawgiver could never have imagined certain specific situations. So there will be exceptions.

To “Love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength,” is often not the hard part. That’s because measuring our success can be subjective, or so we think. Actually, Jesus did give us a means to measure our claim of love for God. And that would be the second part of the commandment, the part that says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If the commandment involves both, then there has got to be a connection. And in the first letter of John, we see the connection. John writes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”[2] We often have little trouble loving ourselves because we have little trouble going after the best of everything, giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, or making excuses for our lapses in judgment. If only we could do the same for our neighbor. But the challenge is figuring out what Jesus meant by “neighbor.” Now I’m going out on a limb here. I think the term includes all people, anybody who is not myself. And even more radically, even those who are most unlike myself. Jesus once said, “Love your enemies.”[3] I can bet we know what he meant.

So the mid-term elections are upon us. We know what Jesus said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” I am afraid some of us are still trying to figure out what he meant when he said “love.” Ask a child. They have things to teach us.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018

[1]Mark 12: 30-31

[2]1 John 4: 20

[3]Matthew 5: 44

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