Fr Edward O'Donnell: Following love, not law, as a way of life
Observing the Commandments only has meaning if it is done as a response to God's love, says Fr Edward O'Donnell
"One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a question to him, 'Which is the first of all the commandments?'" - Mark 12:28
WHICH of us hasn't complained about the amount of red tape we have to cope with today?
Filling in what use to be a simple form has become a mammoth task. Think of the impossibility of keeping up with 'health and safety' regulations.
There are those who complain that the Church also has far too many rules and regulations.
Perhaps it was similar frustration that caused the scribe in the Gospel to ask Jesus, "Which is the first of all the commandments?"
The Jewish people had started out with Ten Commandments, but in time these had been surrounded by over 600 additional rules and regulations.
It was impossible for ordinary people to remember them all, never mind keep them, yet the religious leaders emphasised the necessity of abiding by the letter of the law; motivation didn't matter as long as the letter was observed.
The scribe who questions Jesus was obviously unhappy with this emphasis, because he wasn't asking which was the most important of all the commandments.
Rather, he was asking if there was a key to understanding them.
He was asking: "What lies behind all of the commandments? What should be my motivation for keeping the commandments?"
And those too are the questions posed for each of us by that particular Gospel passage: "What is my motivation for living a life of faith?"
Jesus, without hesitation, answers "love"; love is the motivation for a life of faith.
But Jesus frames his answer, not in a commandment, but in the opening words of the Jewish morning prayer, "Shema Yisrael..."; "Listen, O Israel...", "Listen, O people of God".
When a devout Jew recites this morning prayer, it is said aloud so that the speaker also hears what is said; the eyes are closed and covered with the hands so that there are no distractions but complete concentration.
In Hebrew, the whole prayer has 248 words in it, believed by the Jews to be the same number as parts of the human body.
The person praying the prayer is to literally put his or her whole body and soul into the prayer.
This is further emphasised by naming the parts of the person: "You must love... with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength."
Love doesn't abide by half measures; heart, soul, mind and strength, all that I am, is poured out gladly in love of God.
This raises a challenging question for us: "Is my personal prayer a real expression of love - love for God, and love of others? How much of myself do I put into my prayer?"
Which do you think is more pleasing to God: to be really focused, and heartfelt, in prayer for a short time; or to, in a distracted state, rattle off many prayers merely to get them said?
When Jesus quotes the Shema, the Jewish morning prayer, he is making a very important point: love comes before law; love, not fear, is the motivation for living a life of faith, for love makes sense of the commandments.
And so Jesus says, "you must love your neighbour as yourself."
The love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour.
Jesus challenges the traditional order of priorities. Love comes first; the law only has meaning if it is a response to God's love.
Here are two practical examples.
First, there is much talk today about the relevance of celibacy in the priesthood.
If celibacy is seen merely as a discipline, the imposition of 'man made' law, then of course it becomes a meaningless burden, even an impossible burden.
But if it is a personal love response, chosen in response to a loving God, then it becomes a loving way of life.
The law only has meaning if it is a response to God's love.
Secondly, the same can be said of marriage.
If fidelity to one's spouse is regarded merely as a discipline then it becomes a burden; but within the context of a loving relationship, fidelity is an expression of love.
It is love that gives a marriage meaning.
Oscar Romero, former archbishop of El Salvador, assassinated while celebrating Mass in March 1980, and canonised last month, said this: "Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of laws to be obeyed, of prohibitions. That makes it distasteful.
"Christianity is a person, one who loved us so much, one who calls for our love. Christianity is Christ."
The first of all the commandments is not so much a commandment but a way of life.
"Listen, O people of God... respond with all your heart to the One who loves you; and with all your mind search for his truth; and with all your soul thirst for his beauty; and with all your strength serve him by loving your neighbour as yourself."
:: Fr Edward O'Donnell is parish priest of St Brigid's Parish in Belfast.