1 Corinthians 1:1-3
With these words, God commissions Isaiah, the greatest of Judah's ancient prophets, to be God's voice to all the world. For all men and women proceed from God's loving will and creative power. But what of the 613 commandments contained in the Law? These have not even been revealed to the "the nations" (as non-Jews were called)! And they are not descendants of Abraham!
Such were the weighty questions that the Church addressed in its first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Jerusalem, 50 A.D. What did it mean ultimately to be a man or woman of God? What does faithful life really look like? Jesus takes up this question in his "Parable of the Prodigal Son." The man who lives under the Law and the man who does not live under it have the same loving Father. And they share the same claim to identity and faith, which is to love the Father. In turn, the Father's love for them, and the give-and-take that is implied by relationships within family, reveal the deeply personal and all-inclusive dimensions of religious faith. This is the essence of belief for a Jew or a Christian. And we are never far from the truth when we use the phrase, "child of Abraham," for faith turns out to be a family matter.
This is astonishing when you consider other great religions of the world — Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism/Confucianism. For only in the Judeo-Christian faith is God understood to participate in His Creation. He is very near to us, and His chesed, or love/mercy/kindness, is everlasting. Anyone who has read the Hebrew Scriptures understands that Judaism is about the winding road of relationship between a loving God and His children, which is a love story in all the prismatic fullness, all the joys and sorrows, all the sufferings and comforts that belong to the word love.
Much of the New Testament works out related theology, squaring obedience to the Law with Christian belief. Jesus Himself says that He has not come to destroy the Law but rather to fulfill it. And He adds the assurance that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be changed so long as the world continues. St. Paul follows this statement explaining that faith is essentially a matter of the heart. It is, first of all, about love. The Law, he continues, is simply a detailed working out of what the life of love looks like — to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and body and to love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, the two greatest sages among the Sanhedrin during Jesus' lifetime — Hillel (d. 10 A.D.) and Shammai (d. 30 A.D.) — who constantly argued over the meaning of Scripture, squared off in a duel. Hillel claimed that he could recite all the Law and the Prophets standing on one leg. Shammai replied that such a thing would be impossible. So Hillel adopted the crane-like posture and began: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." No one dared to dispute him.
Love, it turns out, is the essence of Jewish and Christian faith, and the Scriptures echo mercy and kindness throughout its many byways. If at any time you don't see or hear this love, go back and meditate further. Perhaps there is something you might have missed.
My former theology students asked, "What about the Psalms?! How about all that violence and warfare, and the slaughter on battlefields?" Yes, I do read the Psalms as being about, among other things, violent warfare, but not on smoking battlefields. I read the Psalter as being a psychomachia, a war within the boundaries of one's soul. The figures who are put to rout are the haunting ghosts of one's own past sins. They mock and belittle and threaten to drag us down again. These are the enemies that God places under our feet. And I never forget the advice of Origen, the most influential of the Fathers. The primary meaning of Scripture, he said, is its spiritual meaning. If something doesn't square with the law of love, go back and reflect again, this time more deeply.
The practice of our faith is a life of mindfulness, of empathy, of patience, and of understanding. Very often it is a battle, for, sadly, we live in a world that is too often unloving and even hateful. Jealousy, anger, greed, and towering egos surround and threaten us. These are the dark forces within ourselves and in our neighbors. They challenge us to ignore them, and we often fail. Nonetheless, the Pure Light that came into the world and Who made the world as being essentially good has issued a Divine Command that stands above every other Law: "Love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34).
What is our faith then? First of all, it is not a distant abstraction, nor a system of beliefs, nor a series of spiritual disciplines or attainments, but rather everyday life in all its tiny and seemingly insignificant details. Again, this is unique among world religions, which are expressed in terms of wisdom teachings, proverbs, or spiritual exercises. By contrast, we understand God in quite personal terms, as if He were a loving and kindly mother or father who sees our hearts, our thoughts, and our actions. God takes pleasure in us individually, .... or He may grieve when we let Him down. He bestows blessing upon us, one by one; or we can become estranged from Him through life decisions that He simply cannot accept .... though He always stands by the roadside, as Jesus depicts in His parable, awaiting our return, our change of heart, and our regret for what we've done to Him. The Psalmist reminds us that He is slow to anger and swift to bless.
We, in turn, are very much mixed into the essentials of God's life. Our substance is intermixed with His as Jesus is fully man and fully God and a Divine Person of the Holy Trinity. And God's nature reveals this intimate interrelation with us. Time and again, He depicts His people as a wife whom He has faithfully loved, but Who has betrayed His love and given her body to other men. We see God grieve over His children as He beholds their orgies from atop Mt. Sinai, telling Moses that He repents of His love for them. We see God challenge Abraham to find ten people who love Him in the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, only ten. But ten are not to be found.
I heard a Catholic priest on the radio last week say, "God doesn't care about your holy, little acts! Give me a break!" he said. "It's not about you!" "Oh no, Father!" I thought. "It is all about us, each of us, and every little thing we do. For our love of God and our desire to live the life that He wants for us ends up being the spiritual temperature of the world. To put it another way, the Body of Christ is made up of countless cells — some full of light, which flood the body with goodness, and some full of darkness, which we call cancer and death. Every little thing we do counts and affects the cells around us. And there beside us are God and His angels encouraging each of us, letting us know when we are headed off on the wrong track, and filling us with joy when we live within His peace. And we read in the Psalter, He numbers the hairs upon our heads, and His eye beholds even the fall of a sparrow.
As we read repeatedly in our Office and Eucharistic lections this past week,
What is man that Thou art mindful of him,
And the son of man that Thou dost care for him?
Yet Thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honor.
We began our readings this morning by considering that God has scattered His divine light through all the world, that His love and saving grace shall reach to the ends of the earth. St. Paul writes that God's will for our lives was written first on the fleshly tablets of our hearts before it was written anywhere else. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find the truths we have been taught in places where we have never looked. Buddhism teaches of the peace that will only come when we relinquish our carnal desires reminding us of the capital sins of Christianity that lead to spiritual death: lust, gluttony, anger, jealousy, slothfulness, greed, and the greatest, which is ego. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism reflect upon suffering and its connection to unwholesome desires, which focuses the Christian imagination upon God Who hangs upon a Cross suffering for our sins. The proverbs of Taoism and Confucianism contain many truths familiar to the Christian, and their method of teaching recalls our Old Testament wisdom literature.
The great twentieth-century theologian, Henri Cardinal de Lubac encouraged us to open our hearts and minds to God's depth and breadth. The Catholic spirit, he said, is not either-or, but rather both-and. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, OCSO, chimed in,
I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm
the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc.
This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts
everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot "affirm" and "accept," but first
one must say "yes" where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all
that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not
much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it. (133)