Fr. Charles Irvin
Back in 1967 a few short weeks after I was ordained a priest I preached a homily on this Sunday with its readings all about love. Shortly after I returned to the rectory the phone rang the voice of an angry man challenged me with: “When are you going to stop preaching about this love bit? It hasn’t worked for over two thousand years so why don’t you stop now?”
I wonder what he meant by the word “love”? Down through the years my understanding of the word has changed – hopefully for the better. I have wondered, too, what others mean by the word. It appears that many people have been hurt and have suffered because they think it has a meaning that others do not share. In addition, the word “love” has been so over-used that its meaning has been diluted and watered down.
I knew a young man who was totally in love with a young woman. He adored her; he completely gave his heart to her only to be told: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” He was rejected with use of the word love.
Just what do we mean by it? We could spend the rest of today talking about what we mean by the word “love.” We could, and maybe should, spend some time also discussing what St. John meant when he wrote: “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”
The readings for today’s Mass give substance and meaning to the word, substance and meaning that fill it with the content of specific deeds and attitudes we should have toward others.
There are people who are afraid to love, people who have a fear of the vulnerability that’s required when we love. They question love in order to avoid its demands. And so in today’s Gospel account we find an attorney for Pharisees being the leadoff questioner: “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” The question may appear harmless to us, but it was a verbal booby trap. For centuries the Jewish authorities had been arguing about this very question. If this was their lucky day, then Christ would give an unpopular response. The crowd would turn against Him and He would become history.
I want to put before you the idea that legalism is really a form of rejection. It is minimalism. It involves doing only what’s necessary. Legalism allows us to evade and avoid paying taxes. It allows us to keep all of our options open. Legalism keeps us in low maintenance when it comes to expending our energies. Legalism takes us into doing only what’s necessary to pass our exams and get our degrees. Legalism gives us academic careers in which we learn only what’s necessary to get by. Love of learning? Forget it. Well-rounded education? Forget it. Intellectual curiosity? That’s only for geeks. Just “getting by” with minimalism is a kind of rejection.
What about our relationship with God? Do we do only that which is necessary to keep up a minimal relationship with God? Do we think that the best Masses are when the priest preaches the shortest homilies and Mass is over and done with within sixty minutes? Are those what we consider to be the best Masses? Is that all we want to give God when it comes to worshipping Him ?
When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah she asked: “How can this be?” The use of the word “can” was open ended. It was open to any divine response. Mary didn’t ask: “What must I do?” There was no minimalist attitude in her. Her’s was an attitude of openness to anything God wanted to do. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel: “How can this be?” Can is an open-ended word, open to any and all possibilities.
It’s good to recall here the last reported words of Mary that come to us in the gospels. Examine Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and then ask yourself what were the last reported words of Mary? The answer is challenging to both you and me. They were uttered by her at the wedding feast in Cana when she said to the servants “Do whatever He tells you.”
“Do whatever He tells you.” No minimalist legalism here! It is Love’s insistent call to us. To love God truly and really, we must set our egos aside, move away from self-interest, and genuinely surrender our hearts into the hands of the God who loves us and wants us to love others as He does.
What is the purpose of God’s laws and commandments? The Pharisees prided themselves in their knowledge and observance of the laws found in the Torah. They made it a lifetime practice to study its 613 precepts, along with the huge body of rabbinic commentaries that subsequently followed. Here in today’s gospel account we find them testing Jesus to see if He correctly understood the law as they did. His response completely threw them. What does God require of us? Simply that we love everyone as He loves! Jews and Gentiles alike are his children, the children He loves equally and with all of His love. And God doesn’t love us by meeting only the minimal requirements of being a loving Father. God loves everyone with all of His love.
Over the years I’ve watched parents form and shape their children in loving. I’ve watched them present their first-borns with a little brother or a little sister. Can little Johnny be commanded to love his little sister? Of course not. Would it be effective to give him a law, a family regulation, telling him he must love his baby sister? Ridiculous! He can only be shown. People who love without limits are living icons, putting us in touch with God’s love.
In all of the commandments we’ve received from our Jewish origins, or from Christ Jesus himself, where have we been commanded to love God? Such a command is not in the Ten Commandments. We are commanded only to love our neighbor. What’s interesting is that while we are not commanded to love God as distinct from neighbor, we are repeatedly told that in loving our neighbor we thereby love God.
And just who is my neighbor? Are they Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Iraqi’s, Blacks, Asians, or Hispanics? Are my co-workers likewise my neighbors? Do I determine who my neighbors are by using minimalist, legalistic and restrictive standards? Or do I determine who they are and love them according to the open-ended and non-restrictive standards of Jesus Christ? Am I concerned with the greatest law and what I must do, or am I concerned with the greatest love and what I can do?
Love has its demands. It is demanding. It’s easy to observe the Ten Commandments. It’s not easy to love. It’s so hard that we can do it only with God’s graces, God’s gifts, and God’s Spirit within us. For men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible… even to love as He loves.