The first time I drove in the State of Montana was nearly 40 years ago. As I crossed the border, I saw a sign that said: “Speed Limit: Reasonable and Prudent.” And sure enough, there were no speed limit signs – just reasonable and prudent.
Well, as a teenager, I think my idea of reasonable and prudent was probably different from the ideas many other people had, and I was actually a bit upset that I was driving an old Chevy Bel Air instead of a Mustang or a Corvette.
The advice Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel reminds me of Montana’s speed limit. Jesus didn’t say: “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal,” and so on. Rather, he said simply: “Love God and love your neighbour.”
Now, you’ve heard Father Paul talk about natural law. He wasn’t talking about the Canadian political party. He was talking about our inner knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.
The idea of natural law fits with the words of Jesus today. If we believe in God, how can we help but love God? And if we are good people, of course we will treat other people with love and respect.
We rely on our conscience. We assume that our conscience is like Montana’s speed limit. As long as we follow our conscience, we can’t be wrong. But wait a minute! You know that if I had been driving a Corvette, my interpretation of “reasonable and prudent” might have been quite different. Won’t the same thing happen if we follow Jesus’ words in the Gospel? In other words, wouldn’t each of us interpret the words: “love God, love your neighbour” differently?
Some people view their conscience as a rudder – a guiding force that invariably steers us in the right direction. Well, in a way that’s true, but each of us has a conscience that has been formed in a slightly different way – so if it’s a rudder, each person’s rudder will take them in a slightly different direction. When I asked Father Paul about this, he had a better analogy. He said our conscience is like our eyes. Our eyes work quite well, but only if there is light. The light allows us to see the right direction and avoid the problems. So our eyes need the light.
The two great commandments that Jesus gave us in today’s Gospel provide the foundation for all the laws. But we have a whole bunch of more specific rules. We find them in the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, and in many other writings of the Church. Are all these more specific laws necessary? Can’t we just say: “I love God, and I love my neighbour?”
I want to look at just one of these rules as an example. We have to go to Mass on Sunday (or Saturday evening), barring major health problems or other serious situations. Some of us might say: “I think that’s pretty arbitrary. Why can’t I go to Mass whenever I want – maybe during the week? And, for that matter, why can’t I just take a walk in the woods and pray and talk to God, and even sing?”
Well, the Mass isn’t arbitrary! I want to read to you a letter written by St. Justin in 155 AD – that’s about 1,850 years ago.
“On the day we call the day of the sun [Sunday], all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.
The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. [That’s the scripture readings.]
When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. [That’s what I’m doing now.]
Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves … and for all others… [The prayer of the faithful]
When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. [The kiss of peace – usually a handshake.]
Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. [At the Offertory, we bring the gifts to Father Paul]
He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father … through the Son and … the Holy Spirit, and gives thanks that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. [This includes the Eucharistic Prayer and the Consecration]
When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: ‘Amen.” [That’s the Great Amen after the Eucharistic Prayer]
[Then] those whom we call deacons give to those present the “eucharisted” bread, wine, and water and take them to those who are absent.” [I actually let Father and the Eucharistic Ministers help me with that.]
But isn’t that wonderful! More than 1800 years later, we celebrate the same Mass on the same day – nothing arbitrary here.
But we can go back even farther in our history. The Gospel of Luke describes the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday: “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” Do this in remembrance of me – not arbitrary – not: “Do this unless you have a soccer tournament, or a tee time, or if you’ve got something planned with your friends, or ‘I’m too tired’.”
In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom talked about whether it was OK just to pray to God by ourselves. He said: “You cannot pray at home as at church, where there is a great multitude, where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the union of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of the priests.”
So we can see in the scriptures and in the writings and practice of the very early Church that attending Mass, and Mass itself is not arbitrary. And we see something else. Nowhere in these early writings do we hear: “You HAVE to go to Mass on Sunday – OR ELSE!” The celebration of the Eucharist is just that – a celebration. It was a joy for the early Christians to attend Mass with other Christians – and it should be for us. But we don’t always see it that way.
The Catechism tells us that if we don’t attend Mass on Sunday, we commit a serious sin. So many of us say: “I gotta go to church, because if I don’t, God will hate me, and I’ll go to hell, and I don’t want to go to hell!” So the idea is that I somehow hurt God, and God “gets back” at me by giving me a mortal sin – like a teacher would give out a detention – only worse!
But a sin is something we do to ourselves – it’s a detention that we give to ourselves. We lock ourselves in the classroom when our classmates have all gone home to their families. In fact, that’s a good analogy. The Church, and especially our parish, is our spiritual family. By not coming to Mass, we are locking ourselves away from that family.
Now, I’ve talked about the Mass and how it’s our obligation – but more importantly – our blessing and our privilege to go to Mass. And I’ve described in a very incomplete way why the Church requires us to go to Mass each weekend. On the day of the sun, on the day that Jesus rose from the dead, we gather as a family – as neighbours – to love God and to love our neighbours.
But this was just an example – an example of why we need some guidance in living our lives as Christians. Jesus told us today to love God and love our neighbours – that these were the greatest commandments. But at that time, the Jewish Law had 613 commandments, 365 prohibitions (things you weren’t allowed to do – one for every day of the year), and 268 prescriptions (things you were supposed to do – one for every bone in the body). And the Pharisees were obsessed with following all of these laws, like a dog chasing his tail. When they asked Jesus which was the most important, he didn’t say “All of those things are useless,” he reminded the Pharisees that all of the commandments arose from two great and fundamental commandments.
Beyond these two great commandments, our Church has given us the gift of centuries of insight into what it means to be a true follower of Jesus. Attending Sunday Mass is one example, and there are many others in the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, and other writings of the Church. But if we live our lives afraid to do anything for fear of breaking one of the Church’s laws, we are no different from the Pharisees, and, like the Pharisees, we would eventually forget the source of all of these laws – to love God and to love our neighbours.
We need to find a sensible balance between trusting our natural understanding of right and wrong, and seeking the guidance of the Church when we have questions. This seems only reasonable – and prudent.