Sanity and Sanctity

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

This Sunday’s readings begin with a command and a promise. “Fear the LORD, your God,
and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments,” and in return we will grow and prosper, and have long life (Dt 6:2-6). But why should this be the case? What is it about obeying God’s commands that enables us to prosper and do well? Surely God blesses those who obey him. But is there more to it than just divine favoritism?

Yes there is.

We are blessed when we obey God’s commands not because God is pleased that we jumped through his arbitrary hoops, but because God’s commands reflect reality. This is true because as the Divine Creator, God’s will forms the very basis of reality. Knowing and following God’s commands benefits us because His commands are given to help us live well here in the real world.

We think of God’s commands in terms of the moral law, but consider this: God is the Author of the natural world, which operates according to certain laws and principles that can be observed. It benefits us greatly to learn and respect these laws. If I want to build a bridge to safely cross a river, it helps me to know the laws of physics and how they apply to structural engineering. Otherwise my bridge will collapse and people will get hurt. If I am planting crops to feed my community, I need to know the laws of the seasons and how they apply to agriculture. If I don’t respect these laws, my crops will fail and my community will go hungry. God’s laws concerning nature reflect reality (they in fact make reality) and to live well in reality we need to respect them.

These external laws of physical nature can be perceived by our outward senses. But there are also internal laws — moral laws — which govern not physical motion or the changing seasons, but human behavior. These laws can also be perceived by an inner sense we call the conscience. This is that sense that every human being has that tells us right from wrong. Everybody has a conscience, though in some it may be stronger or weaker than in others, just like some people have stronger or weaker eye sight. And sometimes we can misunderstand what our conscience tells us, just like we can misunderstand what our eyes tell us. But the conscience is real, nonetheless; as real as our eyes and ears.

Human beings universally agree in all cultures and societies that right and wrong (good and evil) exist as categories of behavior and that we ought to do good and avoid doing evil. We may disagree on just what constitutes good and evil, because of the weakness of our conscience. But just like the weakness of our intellect may lead us to disagree on scientific matters, like climate change, only an insane person would stand in a rain storm and say it was sunny. Likewise we may disagree as to the moral quality of a given action, but only an insane person would claim we should do evil and avoid doing good, or that good and evil make no difference. We would consider such people insane because they don’t appear to be acting in accord with the real world.

This is what God’s moral commandments do; they help us to see and to understand correctly moral reality, so that we can function well in the real world. If we live according to this reality, we will be blessed. We know this to be true on a purely natural level. This doesn’t mean that if you live a good, moral life nothing bad will ever happen to you. But think about it. Consider the events in life that tend to stress us out, all the things we have anxiety over, that we stay up at night worrying about; all that gives us trouble, in other words. I’m willing to bet that more often than not, the things that cause us grief are the result of sin — either our own or someone else close to us. If more people made an effort to truly and sincerely live by the Ten Commandments, bad things would certainly still happen in the world, but overall we’d have a much easier time of things as a society. We’d be blessed.

What Jesus shows us in the gospel reading for this Sunday (Mk 12:28-34) is the key to understanding the moral law, the deep truth that the Ten Commandments try to teach us. God is love (1 Jn 4:8). At the heart of all reality lies a heart — God’s heart. The Great Reality at the heart of all reality is Love. If we want to live in accord with reality — if we want to be sane, in other words — we will love God with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength (with everything we’ve got) because love is the only proper response to Love. And as a corollary, we will also love our neighbor, who is made in the image of God. And, lest you forget, you’re made in the image of God, too, so you should love yourself.

Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the other commandments are there to teach us how to put these two great commandments into action. That’s the secret to all reality and the purpose of our lives. It’s how to be truly sane — and saintly, too — because in reality sanity and sanctity are one and the same thing. No one is more sane than a saint.