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The Secret to Happiness
Thursday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” 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. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Opening Prayer: I know you are with me, Lord, as I come before you in prayer. I offer this time to you, because you deserve my praise, and I need your grace. I want to know you more clearly, to love you more dearly, to follow you more nearly (St. Richard of Chichester) today and every day. Enlighten and strengthen me, Lord. Help me to discover and accept what you want to give me today, and be pleased with the offering of my heart and mind to you through this prayer.
- Sincerely Questioning the Lord: Unlike the Sadducees and Pharisees who have been questioning Jesus in the Gospel passages of the last few days, the scribe who comes to Jesus asks a sincere question. Scribes were experts in the Jewish law, in the biblical commandments and all the many norms and customs that had been derived from those commandments over the centuries. And there were hundreds of those commandments, customs, rules, and norms. A popular topic for debate among scribes had to do with which of those many commandments was the most important one. Knowing which was most important could make following God a lot simpler, a lot more focused. The scribe came to Jesus to test his wisdom, to see how Jesus would answer the question about the most important commandment. And the scribe responds to Jesus’s answer by showing that he understood the Lord’s wisdom and accepted it. We can see Jesus smile as he complements this inquirer on his humility, prudence, and sincerity: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” What question is on my heart today? What question do I want to ask Jesus today? What question am I sincerely seeking an answer to? Ask it now, and hear the Lord’s response.
- God’s Commandments as the Path to Life: From the biblical perspective, God’s commandments are not arbitrary laws set up as a kind of obstacle course to test people’s devotion to God. Rather, God’s commandments are a revelation of his wisdom and goodness; they unveil the path that will lead us to the fulfillment and fruitfulness we all yearn for in life. As today’s Psalm puts it: “All the paths of the Lord are kindness and constancy toward those who keep his covenant and his decrees” (Psalms 25:10, today’s psalm). When Jesus points out the two most important commandments, therefore, he is actually placing in our hands the secret to happiness. How many self-help books are published every single year claiming to have discovered that secret! And yet, those books keep getting published, and people keep seeking that elusive happiness that we all long for. Jesus’s answer remains the sure path, if only we would follow it. Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength means putting God in the center of our lives. It means giving top priority to spending time with God, getting to know him, and following his will by living lovingly the moral law, the teachings of the Church, and the duties of our state in life. And loving our neighbors as ourselves is a natural outpouring of loving God—this is why Jesus links these two commandments so closely. As St. John puts it in his first letter to all Christians: “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. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). Learning to love God with our whole selves and to love others as ourselves is our great task in life, and nothing else–nothing else–will satisfy our hearts.
- Healthy Self-Love?: One aspect of this discourse often overlooked is the how Jesus instructs us to love our neighbors: as ourselves. This means that there is a healthy way to love ourselves, and that is the model for how we should love our neighbors. There is also an unhealthy kind of self-love. We call that selfishness, self-centeredness, or self-absorption. The healthy kind of self-love is part of the virtue of humility. Humility recognizes that, as human beings, we all have basic needs and built-in limitations. Accepting our limitations and taking reasonable care of our needs is a way of acknowledging that we are not gods, that we are not self-sufficient. Many times, when we find it difficult to be patient with others, to forgive others, to be generous to others, the root of that difficulty can be found in a lack of humility. In a certain sense, then, we will only learn to accept, love, and value others (and thus treat them with Christ-like patience, mercy, and generosity) to the extent that we learn to accept, love, and value ourselves. As we learn to see ourselves through God’s eyes, our blindness will subside and we will also learn to see others through God’s eyes.
Conversing with Christ: Thank you for coming into this world and conversing with those of us who have questions, like the scribe in today’s Gospel. Thank you for caring enough about us to walk with us, to patiently instruct us. Thank you for giving us your commandments, and for giving us the grace to follow them. I want to learn more and more deeply how to love you with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. And I want to learn to love my neighbor as myself. I know that learning to love is not something I will ever be able to check off my to-do list. I know that learning to love as you love is the great adventure of my life. Be my teacher, Lord, and my guide, and my inspiration: “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior” (Psalms 25:4-5).
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will live out this Gospel passage by doing three things: 1) I will offer you some sort of gift as a sign of my love for you; 2) I will give something to myself that expresses a healthy awareness and acceptance of my own needs and limitations; 3) I will give some sort of a gift to neighbor, not looking for anything in return but just looking to love that person as I love myself.
Written by Fr. John Bartunek, LC