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Our Psalm this morning begins with a petition. “Make me to know your ways. O Lord; teach me your paths.” It seems like a simple request until we consider the implications. It is one thing for a student to study from a master and to learn a skill or a trade. But how do we, as mortal beings, propose to understand the ways of God, the creator of the universe and all that is? It is like the old child’s riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is, of course, “One bite at a time.”
In the Gospel, a scribe approaches Jesus with curiosity and attempts to take the first bite. He does so by taking the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and experiments to see what Jesus would do when given this touchstone of the faith. Would he reinterpret it, would he perhaps discard it altogether? We always begin to understand something new by comparing it to something that we already know.
The law of Moses was something that every Jewish person would have been familiar and would have considered sacred. In the tradition, the ten commandments have been studied extensively. Scholars poured over them and gave interpretations and explanations of them to the point that, from the 10 laws, there came to be hundreds of rules to be applied to any situation you could think of. The scribe wanted to know from Jesus which commandment is the first or the most important of them all?
Being a good Jewish man himself, Jesus was familiar with the Torah and the Law of Moses. He understood immediately the depth of the man’s question, but he did not hesitate. He said to the man the most important law is to love God, with all your heart. From all the study and interpretation and debate it comes down to this, love God with you whole being. Then Jesus takes the man’s question and runs with it by giving him the next most important law which is to love your neighbor as yourself.
Is our relationship to the God of the cosmos really so simple that it can be summed up in these two prescriptions? Well yes, and no.
Yes, because if we follow them and direct our life by them, we will be on the path that God has set before us. St. Augustine said that we can, “Love God and then do what we please.” Meaning that if we truly set our hearts on God, we will only desire that which is pleasing to God. If we love our neighbor as our self, we ought to act without judgment but only with compassion and understanding. With these two laws we have a strong foundation on which we can build a life pleasing to God.
But, of course, knowing God is not entirely that simple, because we remember that the question of the scribe was only the first bite of the elephant. We come to know God as he reveals himself to us. He shows himself to the simple and to the weak, to those who are suffering. To the strong and self-reliant God can be a bit more of a mystery. St. Thomas Aquinas, the genius Dominican scholar, spent his life systematically studying God and wrote volumes about his findings. At the end of his life he looked back at his work and said, “It is all straw”, compared to the reality of God.
At the end of the day it is enough to know that God is with us. We do not need to understand everything but only to know that God loves us so much that he gave his Son for us and the Holy Spirit to guide us. With these tools we continue to take our small bites of understanding as we grow in faith and we will come to realize that what is before us is not some tough old elephant. It is a sumptuous meal that we call life. Dig in and satisfy yourself on the banquet that God has placed before us.