The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time October 29, 2017
Exodus 22, 20-26 + Psalm 18 + 1 Thessalonians 1, 5-10 + Matthew 22, 34-40
Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Norman, Oklahoma
When you stop to think about it, a command to love seems a bit puzzling and perhaps even difficult if not impossible. If love is spontaneous and free, if it is a gift that we give, we might do well to wonder how it can be commanded. When we begin to do so, we start to dig into what God is asking of us. Contributing to the puzzle is the fact that the word “love” means too much and too little. It stands for just about everything, and it justifies too many things. People have done things for love that have destroyed the very object of their obsession, and they have done things for love that have destroyed their very souls.
It is probably the most misunderstood word of all. For some it can mean sex, or thrills, or feeling wonderful. For some it makes the world go round, it’s what the world needs now, or all you need is love according to some of the song writers of our ages. It’s supposed to fix things, make us feel better about ourselves and the world. “Love is all you need” according to another song. Suddenly in Matthew’s Gospel, that word “love” shows up as the sum of the law and prophets.
For those of us who take seriously the commandments and really want to follow them, it is rather important to discern what that verb, “love” means in the bible, because in the rest of life, it is certainly not very clear. I would say that it is a word more abused than understood, and the misunderstanding leads to a lot of guilt, sadness, frustration, and disappointment. There is a command here. Clearing up what exactly is being commanded opens the way to faithfulness and holiness.
We believe that God is Love, and our experience of that love, or that God, leads us to understand what is being commanded. The mystery of God takes us far beyond human emotions, warm feelings, and sentiments. These are human traits, not divine traits. It is rather trivial to attribute human sentiments to God. That’s backwards suggesting that God is made in our image rather than us being made in the image of God. When we begin to discern what God’s love is like and how God’s love is expressed and experienced, the best word we have is commitment. In the Old Testament, stubborn, unwavering commitment is what God’s people experience from God. No matter what they do, how they act, and who they worship, God never leaves them and never abandons them. There is no talk of sentimentality here. It’s all about commitment, and that is biblical “love.” With that understanding, commitment can be commanded, and a people made in the image and likeness of God can make commitments just like God.
So, love of neighbor has nothing to do with affection for another, but it has everything to do with not abandoning, ignoring, cutting off, or pretending that someone has no claim on us or that we have no responsibility toward them. We do. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously, and by never leaving them alone to fend for themselves. This kind of love commanded of us by God involves heart and will, soul and life, mind and strength. In the end, it requires fidelity, and its roots are in covenant. Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self means that we can no more break the relationship with another than we can break our relationship to ourselves. This love is ultimately an affirmation of our oneness in God’s sight; our oneness with each other, and our oneness with God. Any break destroys it all.
Profound human love is always an image of God’s love. We can see it all the time, and from time to time we share in it. I have watched people married for fifty and sixty years content to sit quietly in each other’s presence, yet become upset if the other returns home later than expected or is absent for more than a few hours. Behind this silent presence is decades of mutual commitment. Love of God is like this. It means never quitting, never stopping, never giving up. It means attention, patience, and service. It always means some sacrifice that is easy when it comes from a grateful heart that rests secure in the knowledge and love of a God who is always beside us, with us, and within us.