The First Commandment

There are times when a sentence of scriptures sings and sizzles with meaning. This morning, it was as though I had heard the gospel of the day, Mark 12.28–34, for the first time.

One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must 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 must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true: that he is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.

What struck me forcibly was the restatement of that first commandment. We tend to be so anxious to rush on to the second that we do not feel the full impact of the first. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength? To love God absolutely? Most of us, I think, would say we aspire to love God in that way but are aware that we don’t. There are pockets of reserve, occasions when God definitely isn’t at the forefront of our lives, instances of rebellion, sin and failure. In the past I have annoyed many people in the Catholic blogosphere by suggesting that the way in which we blog reveals a great deal about how we think of God and the place he occupies in our lives. To some, he is a hammer with which to batter others — and that applies equally whether we self-identify as liberals or conservatives. To others, he is a kind of warm, fuzzy blanket to be thrown over every difficult or painful situation, someone with whom we are on apparently matey terms. We may not be pope, but we speak for God, being quite certain that his opinion must be the same as ours.

I must confess that I find all this rather difficult. Sometimes, when I am irritated by something or someone, I have the good sense to go into the oratory. I have to learn again and again, it seems, that human anger does not work God’s purposes, that a raging heart is never a truly reverent heart. It is too noisy, too full of itself. Before the altar, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, my burning concerns turn to dust and ashes. It is in silence, love and adoration that we make room for God to be all-in-all. Only then, only when we are filled with God, can we go out and take him to others. The second commandment is like the first, but it is not a substitute for it. God comes first — always.