Jesus’ Amendment of the Great Commandment

Deuteronomy directs us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” However, when Jesus presents us with this commandment in the Gospels, he does so slightly differently. He commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.

This was a difference I had not focused on before my friend Mark Osler brought it to my attention in a talk he gave last week at the law school. Each of the four Gospels includes the reference to loving God with all our mind, a phrase that does not appear in Deuteronomy.

Mark asks, in a short paper he wrote (which he posted on his blog the day before last), whether it matters that Jesus added mind to what is engaged when we love God. His answer is, “Of course it does – it directs us to enter into an intellectual relationship with God, which puts us on the job of discernment and the expression of reflected wisdom.” Not an intellectual relationship to the exclusion of a heart-relationship, but in addition to.

For Mark, this is significant with respect to the the issue of rules vs. principles, something about which I’ve written before. He writes, “Rules require obedience. With Jesus, there is a new a clear challenge – the challenge that each of us use reason to be wise in applying God’s principles…The principle that we love our neighbor necessarily requires that we apply our reason before acting, while the rule that we shall not steal often (but not alwasy) can be followed reflexively.”

Part of our loving God is exercising wisdom, in not just blindly following rules, but taking the principles Jesus gives us and wisely (and freely) applying them to our lives.

My thanks for Mark for his thoughts on this subject.


Rules and Spiritual Growth

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have recently reinstated the practice that the obligation of Friday penance is to be met by fully abstaining from meat on Fridays. Some time ago, I saw the fact that this was being considered reported on someone’s blog, where it prompted several people to express the hope in comments to the blog post that the American bishops do the same. More than one person wrote that the practice of abstaining from meat was a good one and that therefore it was good for people to be told they had to do it.

The other day, my friend Marc wrote a post on Mirror of Justice, a group blog of which he and I are both contributing authors, about the reinstatement in England and Wales, prompting my friend Rick (also a contributing author on the blog) to comment that he thought it would be great if this were instituted in the U.S. as well.

Recalling the prior comments I had read on this issue, Rick’s comment prompted me to inquire about the necessity of the Bishops imposing a mandate on this. If one thinks it is a good spiritual practice to do so, why not just refrain from eating meat once a week, I asked. If it is beneficial, why does one need to be forced to do it? Several people responded with good points about the value of a common ethic and way of life and the value of a leading voice calling people to reinstitute the practice. Some suggested that rules were an important starting point – that compelling a practice was a good thing and that perhaps the time would then come when the mandate was no longer necessary. (You can read the post and all of the comments here.)

My concern is that while rules may be a good starting point, they too easily become the end point. Far too often, the effect of rules is to stifle rather than encourage spiritual development. Rules lead many people to think all they need to do is follow the rules that are established by some authority (here, the Bishops) and they’ve fulfilled their Christian duty. Others very carefully follow the letter of the law, forgetting about the spirit. (With respect to this particular practice, when I was growing up there was nothing penitential about no meat on Fridays – every kid in my neighborhood thought it was a treat because we got to eat pizza or macaroni and cheese for dinner. And I know many Catholics who go out for nice sushi dinners on Fridays during Lent.)

I am not suggesting there is no value in rules. But I do think a mature spirituality has to move beyond rules – to move to our doing things out of our relationship with God. Doing them not because we “have to” but because our will and God’s have become one. (What came to mind when I was posting on Mirror of Justice was Augustine’s “Love God and do as you please.”) And I fear that many people look for clear rules precisely because they are easy – they take all the responsibility off of the individual to do anything other than simply what they are told to do.

Rules have a place, especially with children. But we need to be careful to be sure that rules are aiding spiritual growth, not impeding it.

Human Precepts or God’s Law?

I’ve continued to reflect over the past week on a point I made in connection with the memorial of St. Scholastica last week – the idea that not all of our human rules are to be viewed as sacrosanct.

Jesus makes the point even more strongly in a passage from Mark’s Gospel that we listened to recently. Jesus chides the Pharisees, telling them Isaiah had them in mind when he wrote, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” As an example, Jesus pointed to the contrast between God’s command to “Honor your father and your mother” and the human rule that allowed one to refuse to support one’s mother and father by declaring what might have gone for support qorban (dedicated to God), claiming that by such rule the Pharisees, “nullify the word of God in favor of [their] tradition] that [they] have handed on.”

Not all rules that claim to honor God in fact do so. The ultimate test of any human rule, regardless of by whom or by what claimed authority it is promulgated, has to be whether it is consistent with the law given to us by God. The simplest way to frame the test is to ask: does the rule lead to greater faith, hope and love or not? Is the rule consistent with what Jesus proclaimed as the most important commandment, that we love God and love one another? If not, it is no rule worthy of being followed.

As I reflected on this, the prayer that spontaneously arose from my heart was a prayer for wisdom and humility. I prayed for wisdom in being able to distinguish between those rules that are consonent with God’s command and those that are not, and that I have humility in my efforts to do so, recognizing that I may need help in coming to that determination.

Rules are Made to (at Least Sometimes) Be Broken

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Scholatica, twin sister of Saint Benedict. Scholastica followed her brother to Mounte Cassino, where she founded a religious order for women, not far from Benedict’s monastery. There, she dedicated her life to God.

I know very little about Scholastica’s life; it is the story of an incident that occurred immediately before her death that I love and that reminds us that slavish adherence to man-made rules is not necessarily required by God.

It is told that Benedict and Scholastica visited each other once a year in a farmhouse near their respective communities, since Benedictine rule forbade women inside the monsatery. They would spend the day taking and praying together. Near the end of one of those visits, Scholastica, sensing that she was close to death and asked her brother not to leave, but to stay with her until the next day.

Benedict refused her request. The Rule of Benedict prohibited him from spending a night away from the monastery. Not being able to persuade her brother to break his rule, Scholastica turned to God, praying that He let her brother remain. According to the story, her prayer was answered when God sent a severe enough thunderstorm to prevent Benedict from returning to his monastery. Her response when Benedict asked what she has done was simple: You wouldn’t grant my favor, but God did.

Scholastica and Benedict spent the night together in continued prayer and discussion. Three days later, Scholatica died.

Sure, there was good reason for the rule. But we need to recognize that our human rules are not inviolable and there are times when breaking them serves a greater good than adhering to them. God apparently thinks so too.