Wired to love God, Neighbor and Chocolate Cake

Many non-Catholics just don’t get some of the sacramental rituals we Catholics follow. Some see them as separate from the good works that good people of all faiths (and none) do every day. They even cite Matthew 15:7, in which Jesus criticizes humanity’s over-reliance on ritual (“Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: ‘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.’”) But in Matthew 22:34, Jesus reminds us of the two commandments in which all of our ritual laws are rooted: Love of God and love of neighbor. “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

The question for all Christians is, where are our hearts in relation to these two laws? Do we follow them for our own good or do we follow them because our spirit won’t let us do otherwise? An article in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal purports to answer the question (“Why being kind helps you, too–especially now.”) It states kindness lowers stress hormones, depression and loneliness. Kind people are also healthier and stronger. It even cites a new study that kind people are considered better looking. Our brain changes too. When we’re kind, a part of the reward system (the nucleus accumbens) activates and our brain responds as if we ate a piece of chocolate cake. Our brain craves more, so our repeated kindness keeps rewarding it.

What’s the difference whether we respond to these scientific laws or to God’s laws as long as the result is the same (a happy neighbor)? Well, the scientific laws focus on what can be measured within our brain and how those impulses can be replicated, while people of faith believe God’s focus is on our immeasurable and infinite bond within Him.

In Sunday’s first reading (IS 55:6-9), the prophet Isaiah explains why the simplicity of that link is so hard for some to grasp:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Yet many of us Christians get a good feeling if we think we’ve done a good job loving God and neighbor. We may even long for God to reimburse us for that job by issuing a first class ticket to the Promised Land—a feeling St. Paul seems to describe for the Philippians in Sunday’s second reading (PHIL 1:20-24, 27):

I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. 

But Paul has a grasp of his role in extending that divine lifeline to future generations so they can get a bit closer to Godly ways.

That I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit. Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

But I HAVE, we Christians protest. I’ve earned a reward. I want what’s coming to me!

That’s exactly what the vineyard worker in Christ’s parable (MT 20:1-16) says when he sees the boss pay a newly-hired worker the wage he just sweated through a grueling day to get his hands on.  Here’s the boss’s answer to his complaint:

“’Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The reward center of a typical believer’s brain may not be wired the same as that of Jesus and the prophets, but our spirit longs to keep tuning in to the same love that gave them life.  

–Tom Andel

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