One of the great blessings in life is to find someone you can talk about prayer with. A friend with whom you can share your interior life and who can help you interpret the deepest things is very rare. There are many reasons why such people are rare, but I think one reason might be we do not have confidence ourselves to initiate such conversations, so they’re hard to find. We are not sure we know what we are talking about and so don’t want to seem stupid. If only there was some kind of script we could practice, some kind of benchmark we could test ourselves against, then maybe we could get a sense of whether we are on the right track, and that might make it easier to begin.
Two things to say about that. That temptation – to be perfect in advance – will never leave, and so it should not stop us from having such conversations. As they say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Or as Chesterton once wrote, if something is worth doing, then it is worth doing badly.
The second thing to say is that we do have a script. We do have the means of having a practice run. Actually, practice run might be wrong. We do have a beginning which also turns out to be our end. That is: the Bible. The Bible can act as our roadmap. It can give us a glimpse into the depths of us and our relationship with God. We can see the most intimate of paths mapped out if we pay attention. And I think some of the best texts to see this are the prayers, prayers like the one we find in our gospel today. So, let’s have a look.
Jesus is asked, what is the greatest commandment? The obvious question to this is: why are there any commandments? I think I may have spoken about this before, but the idea of commandment in religion is a very interesting one. Now a commandment can just be one person ordering another person around. Or, it can be the expression of an overriding sense of responsibility. Sometimes it can be both. That sense of: I just have to do this. For example: I see someone in trouble, and I must respond. We hear this all the time in news stories of everyday heroes. “I saw what was going on, and I just responded. Anyone would have done the same.” There is a sense of urgency. There is an obvious course of action. And to some degree, it is all on me.
Anyone who pays attention to their life knows this experience. And anyone who prays, knows this in a personal way through faith. In those circumstances, command is a good way to describe the spiritual reality of the moment. Command then is a central way of describing meaning in our life. It is therefore a central way to describe one’s encounter with truth, with the Word of God.
What, then, is Jesus’s answer to the question, what is the greatest commandment? What is the paradigm moment, the central case of commandment? Jesus’s answer is a prayer. Not just any prayer, but perhaps the most important prayer for Jews, and perhaps the most uttered prayer by Jews of Jesus’s time. It is taken from the Shema Israel that we find in the book of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. I will read verses 4 to 7 which incidentally is in Night Prayer for the Sunday Vigil. You’ll hear the section Jesus quotes. But, also, listen for the bit before that and the bit after it. The bit before it links with the idea of command. The bit after it links with Jesus’s second commandment. The prayer reads:
Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might. And these words that I charge you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall rehearse them to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on the way and when you lie down and when you rise.
The first bit of this prayer – Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one – names God and the one who prays. Not only does it have the Divine name disguised by the word Lord, but it also defines Israel as the one who receive this word. Those who hear the Word of God, those who truly know God, are Israel. And the next bit of the prayer goes further, specifies who Israel is. They are the ones who love the Lord with all their heart, with all their being and with all their might. This is the foundation of prayer, of religion: the recognition of God as the one who creates and names me, and a corresponding love for God. All given, both ways.
You can hear in our Gospel today this spiritual reality – the recognition of God as total, as unique, as defining our being and demanding all we are in response – we can hear that occurring. Jesus, God, is speaking to his people and demanding their love. The Only Begotten Son of the Father, the Lord alone, is saying, “Listen, Israel.” The fundamental experience is one of total love, love given and love demanded in response.
This is made even more obvious in the version in Luke’s gospel. In chapter 10 when the lawyer asks this question, Jesus’s answer is followed by two stories: first, the story of the Good Samaritan and then, second, the story of Martha and Mary. The story of the Good Samaritan is about the second commandment, how to love one’s neighbour – it is a response to the lawyer’s follow-up question. The story of Martha and Mary is about the first commandment, how to love God. And what does Jesus say in that story? That Mary chose the better part. And what was Mary doing? She was doing what Israel must do. She was listening to Jesus. She was listening to God, the beginning of the Shema.
But if we go back to Jesus’s second commandment – love your neighbour as yourself – you can see that that too is in the Shema. The Shema commands Israel to instruct its children in the prayer, which means that they too will be brought into the reality of the prayer. They too will come to know God. They too will love God. They too will pray this prayer. And they too will have to initiate their children in turn.
This is the spiritual reality of loving one’s neighbour as oneself. The experience of listening to Jesus is the experience of knowing I am loved utterly. This is what commands the loving response. But it is also the way we treat our neighbour. In our neighbour, we find someone who is loved utterly by God. And especially in his or her need, we hear God’s Word, God’s command, as our first reading illustrates. When we act on this command, the Word of God is made manifest to our neighbour. We both love them as we are loved, as Jesus commands, and we proclaim who God is, as we hear in the Shema. And this is what evangelises. Our neighbour in experiencing God’s love through us has the opportunity to hear this prayer and to realise they too are God’s children. They too can be brought into the prayer. They too can love God and proclaim this love to those they meet.
And so we can hear how this prayer, this commandment is a description of the deepest of realities. It is a picture of prayer. A picture of charity. A picture of how God’s love enters the human heart and then spreads out into the universe, heart to heart, one person at a time.
When we realise this, we can see one thing more. This prayer – Jesus’s two commandments, the Shema – this prayer is actually a picture of Jesus. This is who he is. He is the one who is obedient to the Father, the one who listens. He is also the one who loves the Father best. He is also the Word of God to us, the Word of love that demands love in return. He is the one we write on our heart. And he is the one we find in our neighbour and give to our children. The experience of the love of God, the experience of the love of our neighbour, and the experience of proclaiming and sharing this love just is who Christ is. This is the deep meaning of life. Life just is Jesus, and we are invited to enter into communion with him and so really live. This is not a metaphor. This is real life.
So, today, let us thank God for the gift of the Scriptures. Let us pray that our hearts be opened to hear all that God wants to share with us through them, namely, Jesus. And let’s pray that we be ever more conformed to Christ so as to give him to our brothers and sisters.