Not Just Words On a Page!

31st Week in Ordinary Time (B) – October 31, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34

Shema: An Event Embodied

It is strange how much certain things can transport us back to certain events. Whether it is a song, or a story, or a smell—there are those things which viscerally transport us back to that time, to that event, to that memory of whatever. Music is a big one for me: different songs or albums stir up different memories and events. Or like when my mom makes certain food, it brings back memories.

Now, for the people of Israel, they all shared a common thing which stirred-up a very specific memory, which transported them back to a crucial event in their history. That thing is the prayer we hear repeated several times in our readings today, called the “Shema”: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). This prayer is central to Jewish life! They would pray it twice a day, morning and evening.

And what this prayer viscerally calls to mind is the time right before the people entered the promised land, after the Exodus, after their wandering in the desert for forty years. This prayer transported them back to a time when the promises of the LORD were being fulfilled: they were about to enter the promise land! Think how you would feel! God’s promises coming to fruition right before your eyes! This prayer was their daily reminder to love and trust the Lord with their entire being. Why? Because God, against all odds, had proved himself capable and faithful. This prayer was their great reminder. But again, more than a reminder! It transported them back.

“Take these words to heart.”

Or, at least that’s what it was meant to do. The real issue is that last part of the prayer: taking these words to heart, truly taking them into our heart, into our being, into our thoughts and feelings, our entire life; allowing these words and that memory to affect us, to truly change our lives. For the Jew, the heart was more than an organ: it was where you thought (they didn’t know how the brain worked); it was where you felt, where your emotions were; and it was the place from which your choices came. In other words—your heart was you. Heart is another way to say, “All of you! Everything that makes you you.” So “taking these words to heart” meant allowing these words to give a decisive direction to your life, rule over your entire life. And as you can imagine, that wasn’t always lived out perfectly. We get it: we all pray the Our Father every day—doesn’t mean we live up to it perfectly.

This is exactly what the young scribe in our Gospel today is struggling with. As a scribe, he is used to sitting with others debating and discussing the Law, but not as familiar with allowing the Law to truly take root in his heart. Instead of this prayer transporting him back to an event, it was just an idea, a discourse, philosophy and theology. Instead of this prayer being about his relationship to the real and personal God of Israel, to the LORD, it was just reduced to morals and commands; good old Jewish values. Instead of this being something very human, deeply important to his heart, it was just an abstraction, something artificial and foreign to his experience. As a good scribe, he broke it down into all of the parts of his heart—the thoughts and ideas, the choices and commands, the emotions and fleeting thoughts—but it had no connection to his heart, to him, to his whole being, to the entirety of himself.

And why not? Why was that so hard for him? Why is this so hard for us? Because ideas and morals and abstractions aren’t what we need. We need something concrete. Something really real. Don’t hear what I’m not saying: ideas and morals and abstractions are important. Yes they are. But they’re not enough! As humans we need something more!

Israel: This Pattern Demonstrated

This is why the story of Israel is so important for us to know and understand. The story of Israel is real. There are always real things happening. There are real events, and real personal relationships, and real humanity! Again, take this story right before the Shema. The story hinges on real events: real rescue from slavery in Egypt, real safe passage through the Red Sea and the desert; real arrival at a real promise land. The story is full of real relationships: Moses and the LORD, the LORD and his people, Moses and Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron, Moses and Joshua. And this story is full of real humanity: desires for freedom, desires for food, desires for safety and land, human weakness and failures, human triumph.

Ideas and morals and abstractions? No. Those didn’t get the people out of slavery. It was an event, a person—this is what gave a new horizon and a decisive direction to the lives of the people of Israel, this is what lead them to praying the Shema each and every morning! A real concrete event, a real person.

The Scribe, Myself, and You

What I worry about when it comes to the faith isn’t that people don’t have all of the perfect ideas, or follow all of the morals, or can paint these vague abstractions about God and Jesus and the Church. What I worry about is that for many of us, and even myself some days—is that this is all just based on ideas, and value systems and morals, and abstractions—instead of a real concrete event, a real person, our real humanity.

What the scribe was missing in his life was not that he didn’t know the ideas or the morals or the abstract concepts—nope, he knew them. I have more years in school and pieces of paper on my wall than I know what to do with—I’m not worried about my knowledge of the faith or of right and wrong or of my ability to wax on and on (my butt hurts from talking out of it so much). You don’t need me to get up here and give you better ideas and morals—that’s not what you need. We’re all in search of something real: a real event, a real person!

A priest who is a great hero of mine was once debating a very famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens (if that name means anything to you). And Hitchens was brining up how ridiculous certain Christian beliefs are and how abstract and unhelpful her theology is, and how you can’t verify any of it, and how irrational all of that is now in the twenty-first century. And this priest kept agreeing with him. Saying, “Yeah, I agree. If all we have are these doctrines and these morals and abstractions…we are the most pitiable of people, just like St. Paul said.” And Hitchens, in disbelief, said, “I have been deceived. I thought I was coming here to debate with a man of ‘faith’!”

What this priest went on to say was that all of the doctrines and morals and abstractions are important, but “Christ is first of all a lump of cells in the womb of a woman.” That’s the difference. Christ is first of all a fact, real, concrete. “Christ is the center of history and the universe” is an abstraction, it’s a discourse, an intellectual concept—which is correct, it’s correct! … but so what?

I know you know this, but I spent my first two years as a priest at St. Margaret Mary on the South side of Wichita—very hispanic part of the city. And the bane of my existence was Confirmation preparation. Because out of the one hundred and twenty kids in Confirmation prep, only about twenty of them attended Mass on a regular basis. So essentially what? One hundred kids who had no connection to any of this. They were completely confused about why they had to be there or do any of it. If you asked them, they would tell you that they are Catholic, that they believe in the Virgin Mary. But the reality of Christ, the fact of Christ, Christ as that once-lump-of-cells played no part in their life. Only Christ the abstraction, the idea, the moral teacher. Their “real life” was founded on the facts of school, or their friends, or getting ready for parties, or their quinceañera, or buying a truck—on facts, on realities in their life.

My worry is that we’re missing the fact. We’re missing the reality.

Jesus: Embodiment of the Kingdom

Jesus is not an idea, he wasn’t around to tell us some good rules. In the Gospels, what we find is that Jesus is very real. People are constantly coming from all over to see him, to listen to him. Jesus isn’t an idea. He’s not just handing out pamphlets with laws. He’s real.

What’s missing oftentimes in our lives as Catholics, as Christians, is not that culture is less Christian, or that certain laws don’t favor us, or what not. What’s missing—and what people are looking for, what I’m looking for, what I hope you are looking for!—is Him, His presence, Jesus in the flesh, Jesus really present—and for people that have really met Him! That is what’s missing! If Jesus is risen from the dead, that means he’s still present!

Pope Benedict XVI would often say, and Pope Francis echoes him time and time again, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice [a moral choice] or a lofty idea [doctrine and intellectual speculation], [Christianity is the result of] the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est 1). We need the experience of that encounter with Christ! A very real event we can point to, a very tangible experience of a real person—because that is what being a Christian is the result of, that is what gives rise to this new horizon and decisive direction in our life! And when other people encounter us, when they meet us who have encountered him, who live our lives with this new horizon and different direction than them, then the work of evangelization happens.

Someone who has encountered Christ, who lives with this horizon and decisive direction “is not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:34). But it begins with an event, an encounter with a person, with Jesus Christ himself. That’s why I cannot encourage you enough to go to Mass and adoration and encounter him in the Eucharist; to go to confession and encounter him in the gift of his mercy; to read and pray with scripture, and encounter him in his Word! He is present in so many different ways to us too, no doubt! But these are such privileged places of encounter.

Here at the Mass, here in the Eucharist, we don’t just think about Jesus, or pray that we can follow his example better. In the Eucharist, the event of Christ, the person of Christ is present! Here in this place, here on this altar—Jesus Christ is present, flesh and blood, once again.

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