One day a Jewish rabbi discovered several of his students playing checkers when they should have been studying the Torah—the Jewish book of the law. The embarrassed students immediately returned to their books, but the rabbi smiled to himself and told them not to be ashamed, since they had in a sense been studying the law while playing their game. Puzzled at this, they asked the rabbi what he meant, and he explained, “In checkers, there are only three rules. First, you may not make two moves at once. Second, you may only move forward, not backward. Third, when you reach the back row, from then on you may move that piece wherever you wish. That is also what the Torah teaches.”
After the rabbi left, the students discussed his words, and eventually came to realize what he had taught them. First, they should not clutter their lives with more than one move at a time, but instead always remember what truly matters in life. Second, they should keep their eyes on the goal, and persevere in spite of setbacks and dangers. Third, they would become truly free only when they moved to the last row—which symbolizes or involves union with God and compassion toward others. According to the Jewish author Martin Buber, the secret of playing one’s life to its fullest is found in submission to the divine rules of play (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 18, No. 3, p. 11). Just as in checkers, so too in life: to be successful, there are only a few simple rules to be mastered: namely, love of God and love of neighbor.
The scribe mentioned in St. Mark’s Gospel (12:28-34) was obviously someone who understood these rules. When he asked Jesus “Which is the first of all the commandments?,” he wasn’t trying to entrap Jesus in His speech, as so many of his colleagues had unsuccessfully tried to do; he really wanted to know the truth—and when Jesus expressed it, the scribe happily accepted His teaching and repeated it in his own words. That’s why Jesus was able to tell him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” When we truly want to know the truth and live by it, God is pleased with us; as Moses told the people in Deuteronomy (6:2-6), if they carefully observed the Lord’s commandments, God would bless them with a long life and let them prosper in their homeland. Jesus makes a similar promise to us, though not necessarily in terms of earthly success. Our true home is in heaven, and as reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (7:23-28) assures us, Jesus—as the true and perfect high priest—“is always able to save those who approach God through Him, since He lives forever to make intercession for them.” As the Son of God, Jesus came to earth as a sign of God’s love for the world, and by His words and deeds, Jesus taught us of the importance of loving one another. Those who truly learn this simple but profound lesson will be found worthy of and ready for the gift of eternal life.
In the earliest centuries of the Church, love is what distinguished Christians from everyone else. A pagan philosopher named Aristides wrote a report about the Christians to the Emperor Hadrian, saying, “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who will hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers and sisters in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God” (Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 234). Another 2nd century pagan philosopher, the Greek author Lucian, wrote of the Christians, “It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator has put it into their heads that they are brethren” (Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 225).
The “first legislator” Lucian refers to is, of course, Jesus—for as today’s Gospel reminds us, He insisted on the importance of loving God with all our hearts, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This “law of love” is ultimately the only rule needed for true and lasting happiness, both in this life, and especially in the life to come. How are we doing in following this rule? Do we try to obey God’s commandments—not just because “we have to,” but because we truly love our Heavenly Father? Do we follow the teachings of the Church not merely to avoid a guilty conscience, but also as a genuine expression of our devotion to Jesus? Do we show compassion to others not primarily to collect favors or to feel good about ourselves, but because we’re honestly trying to see and love Christ within them? Today’s world is considerably different from the Roman Empire during the first few centuries of the Church’s existence, but the most important things haven’t changed: love is our mission here on earth, and only love will see us safely home to Heaven.
It’s not enough to claim “I believe in God,” or “I follow Jesus,” or “I’m Catholic and I obey all the rules of the Church.” St. Augustine warns us, “Love alone distinguishes between the children of God and the children of the devil. They may all sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross of Christ; they may all respond ‘Amen’ to prayers and sing ‘Alleluia’; they may all be baptized, and come to church, and even build the church themselves. But we can discern the children of God from the children of the devil by their love alone” (Thigpen, A Dictionary of Quotes from the Saints, p. 135). Just as we can’t play and win a game of checkers unless we know and follow the rules, neither can we achieve our purpose in life unless we understand and live by those things that truly matter. We must focus on what really counts, we must persevere in moving toward our goal, and we must come to know and love God by serving others in His Name. If we truly believe and understand these truths, Jesus is able to say to us “You are not far from the Kingdom of God”—and with His help, we will successfully complete our journey and arrive safely at our true and everlasting home.