What an extraordinary burden the Shema must seem to be for those who still see their freedom as being at battle against God’s will. How in the world could you possibly bring yourself to fulfill such a commandment without believing that what God desires and has planned for you is going to bring you fulfillment? It is, in fact, an impossible task. If you have given God 100% of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, there is nothing left for yourself. How is it even suggested that one love his neighbor after giving everything over to God? It just seems like too much.
This is not a characterization of the heart of the scribe in our gospel passage. He agrees with Jesus that the command to love God with one’s whole self is the most important commandment. We might speculate that this scribe, in particular, is beginning to understand something of how much his Father in heaven loves him. Is this not the key to believing the value of such a commandment? In a healthy heart, the command ought to first be a reminder of the covenant of Creation, God’s free gift of himself. It is a lack of faith in the Father’s goodness that leads us doubt, closing us off to receiving the gift of his love. This lack of trust only deepens the lie that God wants nothing less than to take from us all that we have. Likening him to the bully who steals a child’s lunch money, we avoid him for fear of being hurt. ‘By casting doubt in his heart on the deepest meaning…of love as the specific motive of creation and of the original covenant, man turns his back…on the “Father.” He in some sense casts him from his heart. At the same time, thereafter, he detaches his heart and cuts it off, as it were, from that which “comes from the Father”: in this way, what is left in him is what “comes from the world.”’ (TOB 26:4)
The first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy zooms in on the great commandment and alludes to many others, but it is just as important to recall the details from the chapters surrounding this passage. Weary from their time in the desert, and the blessings and scourges they experienced, I am sure that there were many Israelites who were hesitant to recommit whole heartedly to God, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Maybe there were some who did not even want to cross the Jordan River. Not believing the promise of what lay ahead, they still thought that God had it out for them. Chapters 4-11 have many reminders to the Israelites of the promises that God has made and is making to them, and the signs and wonders that he has worked in their midst. The people are reminded of God’s mercy and forgiveness and are encouraged over and over again to consider that God’s way’s lead to life. The Book of Deuteronomy reminds the people of God’s promise to slay their enemies, and that He has chosen them as a people set apart. While still rooted firmly in the tradition of the Law, the habilitation of the Israelites’ image of God is crucial to their fidelity going forward. Just as crucial is the memory of who they are; precious in the sight of God. He is not seeking to work them like slaves, but to provide for them as a loving Father or faithful spouse. He is not looking to take from them their freedom but to give to them “every spiritual blessing in the heavens.”
Many people wander in the desert (or eat from the dumpster) for a long time before they encounter TOB. They are weary and burdened, and then are confronted, in TOB, with a commandment like the Shema, to give everything of themselves. I have recently been reminded that the Theology of the Body has been a wonderful context of evangelization for many and a place of encounter with the God who loves them; encouraging people to begin a taste of the Kingdom here on earth, discovering who they really are through a sincere gift of self. As well, for those who have not yet encountered God, their narrow vision can make the Theology of the Body appear to be just another way of saying the same commandments. So many promises have been made about the fulfillment that sex can bring. Often, people’s weariness of the world’s empty promises causes them to look with suspicion even on the truth. In this state, “man is unable to give voice to “the deepest layers of his potentiality [For redemption]…” (TOB 49:6). Some are hesitant to “cross the Jordan” by even listening to this good news.
What is the call (TOB 46:4) that draws the hearer of the Good News to seek the transformation of his ethos, the redemption of his body, and the fullness of life in Christ? Certainly an authentic presentation of the Theology of the Body will present the truth of who God is and who we are. Wherever truth is communicated it can cut to the heart and open someone up to God’s grace. But many who resist this message of truth are sad, weary, and are in need of hope. Like those who have wandered in the desert for many years, before opening up to hear with a deeper listen, they may need straightforward reminders of who God is, who they are, and how he loves them. They need reminded of the signs and wonders that God has worked in their midst (the witness of the redeemed). Whether intentionally preaching TOB or not, may we never let a homily go by without telling our people who God is, how he loves them, and offering hope that giving everything of themselves to God and neighbor will provide the fulfillment they seek.
Father Andrew Hoover is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland where he currently serves as Parochial Vicar at St. Peter Catholic Parish in North Ridgeville, Ohio. He has attended TOB I and looks forward to attending more courses.