The book we’re using for Adult Faith Formation during the Fall months describes how to find a satisfying Catholic spirituality for the middle years of life, the period of time after marriage and child-rearing.
According to the author, a mature faith is one that finds an adequate and satisfying way to deal with the ennui and disappointment that comes from realizing one has fewer years of life remaining than one has lived thus far. A few years ago, I was speaking to a friend about the challenges of “mid-life.” He responded, “What are you worried about? You’re past mid-life. You’re on the downhill slide into senescence.” The book we’re reading this Fall is a spirituality for those on the downhill side of life.
The author of the book offered an insight about western society. He said that our culture encourages us to be eternal children, like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. We are taught to seek youth, innocence, and freedom from responsibility.
Unfortunately, these values are obstacles to what we actually need and want. Everyone wants to be able to deal adequately with the individuality of their lives. Emotional and intellectual immaturity prevents the possibility of dealing adequately with an adult’s life.
The author of the book used some very compelling images. He said that instead of teaching us to be wise and cooperative, our culture teaches us to be heroic and disruptive. The crimes and conflicts that fill news reporting are the result of this self-destructive message. Terrorists, white supremacists, and lone gunmen have this characteristic in common: they consider themselves to be heroic, and everyone else considers them to be depraved.
The author of the book said that the destructive and self-destructive behavior in which people engage is the result of their inability to direct their desires and needs constructively. Most people would probably agree with this assessment, but few can agree about how to remedy this pathological situation. This Sunday’s Gospel reading speaks directly to this issue.
Some of the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the most important?” (Matthew 22:36) All of us know Jesus’ response. We refer to his response as The Two Great Commandments. The Two Great Commandments are actually quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
Jesus’ words weren’t original to him; neither was the combination of the two commandments original to him. It was commonly accepted among rabbis at the time that love of God and love of neighbor represented essential fulfillment of the demands of the Mosaic Covenant.
It wasn’t Jesus’ answer that infuriated the Pharisees; rather, it was his application of the teaching that they could not abide. For the Pharisees, God existed in order to validate the exclusivity of their version of religion, and the status of neighbor was restricted only to those who imitated the Pharisees’ self-serving behavior. Jesus, on the other hand, took a very inclusive view of religion. For Jesus, God was concerned primarily with outcasts and the poor, and as a consequence, everyone was potentially one’s neighbor.
Jesus associated love of neighbor with love of God because each of those two propositions alone can be taken to faithless extremes. To love other people with no reference to God is an obvious act of faithlessness. To love God with no reference to other people is an obvious refuge for the prejudiced, the mean-spirited, and the dishonest.
He used a very inclusive definition of love because limiting God’s love, or limiting one’s love for one’s neighbor, leads to the kind of life that seems heroic to oneself, but is judged by others to be depraved.
Putting love of God and love of neighbor above love of self would be a difficult task even if it wasn’t as counter-cultural as it is for us. Regardless of its difficulty, however, it is a task worthy of our effort. It’s worth the effort to make God (and not our own wants and needs), our first priority. It’s worth the effort to give others the respect, attention and compassion that we want for ourselves.
It’s worth the effort to follow these challenging commandments because doing so makes us into the people each of us wants to be, and failing to do so makes us into the person we would judge to be a monster.
I don’t intend to trivialize Jesus’ words, or the challenge they pose in our lives, but the Two Great Commandments are seasonally appropriate teachings for the civil event Halloween. A life lived only for the sake of self is self-deception; it can trick self and others into believing that one is good when one is thoroughly evil. A life lived for the sake of God and others is a blessing to everyone, including oneself. Are you a trick or a treat?