This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 12:28b–34:
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.
As some readers may know, my father worked on the space program for three decades, working in training and then in quality engineering. (He’s currently enjoying his retirement more than any man I know.) For him, every job and every process has a procedure, and the only path to sure success is to follow that procedure in each and every detail. Even as a kid, he would disassemble machines carefully to learn how to put them back together, carefully and systematically laying out each part in order so that he could know exactly how to put them back together.
When I was a kid, I would take things apart, scatter the components, and then stare mournfully at them until finally deciding to hide the entire mess and find something else to do. This did not please Dad much, but goodness knows he tried. When my first car needed a carburetor rebuilt, he sat down with me patiently to walk me through it for about ten minutes, and then I sat patiently while he did it correctly, working directly out of a manual he bought. And it worked, too.
Oddly enough, in my later careers I would develop procedure manuals as a large part of my jobs — repeatedly, in fact, and not just in one industry. Some of Dad’s approach stuck with me, even if I don’t exactly have the sense or patience to always follow the instruction manual. When things get bad enough, though, I start looking around for it to rescue me from my own incompetence.
That is the story of humanity writ large, as today’s Gospel and readings remind us. And it’s not as if it’s a complicated issue. In the Garden of Eden, the Lord gives Adam and Eve a two-step instruction manual. First step: Trust me when I tell you not to eat fruit from that one tree. Second step: See Step One. Adam and Eve have other ideas, however, thinking that they know how to operate Creation 1.0 better than its designer. Instead, they disassemble their relationship with God, and then try to hide the mess to keep Him from finding it.
Oh, my dad could tell you stories about that …
When the Lord then comes to the rescue of the Israelites, He provides them with a second set of instructions, this time still only ten steps. Even before they receive the tablets, the Israelites are trying to do things on their own again rather than trusting in the Lord, building a golden calf to worship instead. Moses smashes the tablets in despair but God provides a second set, and then to make it very clear how to live in compliance, provides 613 statutes as well. In our first reading, though, Moses makes clear that the Law boils down to precisely what He told Adam and Eve in the garden: to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,” rather than to envy Him and seek to usurp His role as our Father.
By the time of Jesus’ mission of salvation, that message hadn’t gotten lost — but it had been overwhelmed by our usual insistence on relying on our own nature rather than having faith in the Lord. The temple leadership had forgotten that the Law was a path to the Lord and not the primary end in itself; the people were lost in despair over their oppression. Jesus came to remind everyone that the answer was, in essence, to follow the instruction manual — not just to find the Lord but to help others to find Him as well. To love your neighbor as yourself is to understand not just our own place, not just to understand their place, but to understand God’s place as the Creator and His desire to have us all choose to live as one with Him.
Follow this simple instruction and all else becomes second nature, and we will live in His bountiful love. In that sense, we don’t need to disassemble the world around us to try to control its workings or rebuild it to suit ourselves. We need only to love and trust the Lord and treat our neighbors as His children, too. After all this time, the instruction manual hasn’t changed. It’s there to rescue us from our own inevitable incompetence. All we need to do is follow it.
And someone please get Dad some smelling salts if he reads that last sentence from me. The instructions are on the label … I think.
The front-page image is “Moses Showing the Tablets of the Law to the Israelites, with Portraits of Members of the Panhuys Family, their Relatives and Friends” by Maerten de Vos, c. 1575. On display at the Museum Catharijneconvent, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.