Saturday, November 04, 2006

The First Great Commandment: Always A Goal, Never An Achievement. The Second Great Commandment: An Achievement, But Not A Constant One.

What's in that shoebox?


(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on November 5, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 28b-34.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2006]


A man and woman had been married for more than 60 years. They raised 3 children; they also had several grandchildren and even a few great-grandchildren. They had been faithful to one another for 6 decades and had kept no secrets from each other during that time—with one small exception: the woman kept an old shoebox on the top shelf of her bedroom closet, and she refused to let her husband see what was inside of it. In fact, she told him in no uncertain terms that he was never even to question her about its contents.

So he didn’t.

Not long after their 60th anniversary, the woman came down with a very serious illness. She was bedridden, and very weak. The doctor told her that she probably wouldn’t recover.

One day her husband was getting something out of her closet, and he spotted the old shoebox. He took it to her bedside and asked if she’d be willing to tell him, at long last, what was in it.

She said, “Yes. I think it’s the right time. Open it up.”

When he took the cover off, he found two little crocheted dolls inside along with some money. The money totaled $95,000!

He couldn’t believe it.

She said, “Let me explain. When we were married all those years ago, my very wise grandmother told me that the secret of a happy marriage was to avoid arguing as much as possible. She said that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and crochet a doll.”

Her husband was touched; he had to fight back the tears. After all, there were only two dolls in the box.

He thought to himself, “Wow, this dear woman—this lovely wife of mine—only got angry with me two times in sixty years!”

He said, “Honey, that explains the dolls, but what about all this money? Where did it come from?”

She replied, “Oh, you didn’t figure that out yet? That’s the money I made from selling the dolls!

Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s hard—especially when your “neighbor” is someone you have to deal with on a daily basis: your spouse (even if you haven’t been married for 60 years!), your parent, your brother or sister, your annoying co-worker.

And yet, when you stop and think about it, on the surface at least this commandment really isn’t all that demanding. It doesn’t say, for example, that we should—or must—love other people with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength (that’s the way we’re supposed to love God); it simply says we should love our neighbor as we love ourself.

The problem, of course, is that many of us love ourselves a lot—and sometimes too much. We might even love ourselves with a false or misguided love.

But even if we have a healthy love of self (the kind that Jesus would approve of), the fact is it’s very often much greater than the love we have for other people.

And that’s fairly easy to demonstrate.

One of the best explanations of love that was ever given is preserved for us in 1 Corinthians 13. There St. Paul writes a number of things about love, one of which is this: “Love is patient.”

I ask you today: How patient are you with other people? Specifically, are you as patient with other people as you are with yourself? I don’t know about you, but very often I’m much more patient with myself when I make mistakes and say the wrong things than I am with others when they make the very same mistakes and say the very same wrong things.

That’s the tendency we have because we share a fallen human nature. It’s important that we recognize it.

Jesus says to us today, “Being half as patient with others as you are with yourself isn’t good enough; being three quarters as patient with others as you are with yourself isn’t good enough. To love your neighbor as yourself means you must be at least as patient with others as you are with the person you see in the mirror every morning.

St. Paul also speaks in 1 Corinthians 13 about forgiveness. He says, “Love does not brood over injuries.” Another question that can make us aware of the fact that we sometimes love ourselves more than we love others is this one: Do I expect others to forgive me for things that I would refuse to forgive them for?

Too often our attitude can be, “Well of course they should forgive me, because I really didn’t mean it (and besides, I’m such a nice person); but they did it intentionally—that’s the way they always act—so why should I forgive them?”

Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”—and love includes forgiveness.

One footnote needs to be added here . . .

Although most people have the tendency to love themselves too much, there are some who do have the opposite problem: they love themselves less than they love others. And that’s just as wrong. In fact, a few don’t love themselves at all; they’re filled, sad to say, with self-hate.

If they’re ever going to be faithful to the second great commandment, these men and women will need inner healing—the healing of their hearts, minds and souls. We should pray that they receive it.

Hopefully I’ve made it clear that observing the second great commandment on the practical level is anything but easy. But as difficult as it might be to love your neighbor as you love yourself, it’s really a ‘piece of cake’ compared to the first commandment Jesus gives us in this story.

I think we’d all agree that it would be challenging enough if Jesus had said that we need to love God as we love ourself. But he went way beyond that. He said we must love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength: and not with “some” of our heart and “some” of our soul and “some” of our mind and “some” of our strength; not even with “most” of our heart and “most” of our soul and “most” of our mind and “most” of our strength.

He said we have to love the Lord our God with everything: with ALL our heart and ALL our soul and ALL our mind and ALL our strength!

When you think of how easily we can be distracted in prayer; when you think of how many little sins we commit every day; when you think of how easy it is to let other things take precedence over our relationship with God, you realize that this first great commandment is the spiritual equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest! (In fact, climbing Mt. Everest is actually easier!)

I was teaching in the fourth grade at St. Pius School the other day, and I was reviewing the Ten Commandments with the children. I said, “What’s the first commandment?” One boy raised his hand and said, “I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange gods before me.” I said, “Very good. Now that commandment was given at a time when people made golden calves and worshipped them. How many of you have seen people worshipping golden calves lately?”

Not a single hand went up—thankfully!

I said, “But this commandment still applies to us today. Can anyone tell me how?” Again, not a single hand went up. So I went over to the blackboard and drew three items: a dollar bill, a football, and a basketball.

I said to them, “Here are 3 false gods of today. So often people tell me that they don’t have time for the Lord because other things are more important, like money, and sports, and birthday parties, and other family gatherings. It’s very easy for all of us to put God in second place in our lives, but this commandment says he’s ALWAYS supposed to be in first place!

The bottom line is this, my brothers and sisters: even for the best among us, the first great commandment of Jesus—to love God above all things—is always a GOAL; it’s never an ACHIEVEMENT on this side of the grave. With the exception of Mary, it wasn’t even an achievement for the great saints. Even they fell short, albeit in small ways.

The second—the commandment to love our neighbor—is an achievement (thanks be to God), but definitely not a constant one.

Which explains why we’re here, doesn’t it? You see, if we loved God and our neighbor always and perfectly, we wouldn’t need to pray! We wouldn’t need Mass or Confession or any of the other sacraments. We wouldn’t need God’s grace, or the power of the Holy Spirit.

But we do!

And hopefully we all realize that we do.