St. Valentine’s Day is a day that celebrates romantic love. This sort of love, to be sure, is noble and to be encouraged. The Church has sometimes been accused of being suspicious of romantic love. It is true that certain heretical groups such as the Cathari and the Jansenist’s have frowned on sexual love in marriage. But they were considered heretics for their views. A true Catholic view celebrates romantic love (eros in Greek). As a Catholic Pastor I like others want to encourage romantic love and ultimately marriage. And within marriage to encourage on-going romantic love. I tell my younger parishioners, get married (first!) have lots of babies and raise them Catholic! You may recall the old Rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.”
A Great Love – Romantic love is good and it brings blessings! But romantic love (eros) has a place a purpose and in God’s plan. Fundamentally eros is meant to draw a man and a woman to each other and ultimately to marriage. And within marriage their romantic love is to be fruitful and multiplying. Yet too many today just play around with and dabble in eros. They vent its power through premarital sex and do not follow it’s intended course which is to draw to people together in deep desire and love. Eros is about drawing and man and woman into deep interpersonal union it is not merely about bringing two bodies together. Too many rush to eros’ physical urge and disclose the deepest mysteries about themselves inappropriately. The great dance of courtship and marriage is thus short-circuited and eros looses both it’s dignity and its goal. Marriage rates have plummeted and so have birthrates.
Pope Benedict had this to say on eros:
That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called “eros” by the ancient Greeks….The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness…..Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet [in] the contemporary [scene] eros, is reduced to pure “sex”….Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: … no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. [But] true, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves….Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important….eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose….[And in Scripture Marriage] becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. (Deus Caritas est 3-11 selected)
So romantic love (eros) has a dignity but it also has a purpose. It’s purpose is to draw man and woman toward marriage, family and ultimately toward God. The deep desire that man and woman have for each other is a sign of the ultimate desire of the human heart for deep union with God.
An even greater love – But there is a second love to be celebrated on St. Valentines Day and that is Agape love. Agape love is the love whereby we love God above ourselves, above all things and above all people. There is perhaps no greater example of this sort of love than that of the martyrs. They were willing to forsake everything for Christ. They excepted the supreme price of this love, the gift of their very own life. Every martyr can truly say, “Lord, I love you more than my self, my life, my things and more than any other person in my life. The world hates me for this and will kill me for it, but I willing pay the price that this love demands.”
St. Valentine was a martyr. Christian tradition recognizes two saints from the early Church as “Valentine.” The first is the Roman priest Valentine. He was decapitated in 268 AD for the crime of trying to convert a member of Emperor Claudius the Goth’s household. He also a renowned healer. The second Valentine is Bishop Valentine who was also a renowned healer and was also turned it for converting people to Christianity. He was imprisoned and the attempt was made to force him to sacrifice to pagan gods. When he refused an attempt was made to club him to death. When that failed he was beheaded in 273 AD.
The red of St. Valentine’s Day signals not only the warm blood of romance, but also the red hot blood of martyrs. Eros is surely noble and necessary. It is rightly celebrated. But no great love (agape) exists than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Thus today the red blood of martyrs too is celebrated and proclaimed.
There was an expression common among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, wherein one rabbi would ask another a question, and request that the answer be given while “standing on one foot.” This is a way of saying, be brief in your answer.
That idea may be behind the question that is raised in today’s Gospel by the scholar of law, who asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
The text says that he asks this question of Jesus in order to “test” Him. In effect, he says to Jesus, “All right, let’s get right to the point. You’re talking about a lot of new things, but what is the greatest commandment?”
For this reflection, though, let’s just set aside the background hostilities and allow Jesus to recite the law, standing on one foot. In responding, Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד. Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
The fuller text recited by Jesus is from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts (Deut 6:4-6).
Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
That’s it—the whole law, standing on one foot. The first table of the law (the first three commandments): love the Lord your God. The second table of the law (commandments 4-10): love your neighbor.
There is value in noting several aspects of this summary:
The Leadership of Love– Jesus says that the whole law and the prophets depend on the command to love God and your neighbor. Love comes first and is the foundation, the power of the law. Jesus says elsewhere, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In other words, it is love that enables us to keep the law. When we want to do something, then the doing is both joyful and in some sense effortless. Love changes our desires so that we want what God wants and we keep His law not because we have to but because we want to.
The Layers of Love– The text says we should love God with our heart, our soul and our mind. These layers of our existence encompass the whole of the interior person. Thus:
Mind– Through love we come to a new mind, that is, a new way of thinking.
Heart– Through love we receive a new heart; our desires are reformed and conformed to God.
Soul– Through love we receive a new soul. We begin to live a whole new life because the soul is the life-giving principle of the body.
The Lavishness of Love– Note the use of little word all. We love the Lord with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. When we love, we are not minimalists; we are lavish. Our response to God is wholehearted, not perfunctory. Love does not ask, What is the least I can do? Love asks, What more can I do?
It is said that Rabbi Hillel (110 B.C. – 10 A.D.), being even briefer, said of the second table of the law, “Do not do unto others that which you would hate done unto yourself … all the rest is commentary.”
We like to make it more complicated, but it really isn’t. If elaboration is required, consider the Ten Commandments, understood and expressed in the light of love:
I love no other gods. If I really love God, should I need separate laws that tell me that I ought not to put other gods, whether things or people, ahead of Him? No! I want to be faithful and would never dream of being unfaithful by “sleeping with other gods” of any kind.
I love His name. I do not need rules that forbid me from using God’s name hatefully or in vain and empty ways. I love His name; hearing it lights up my heart with love.
I love to praise Him. If I love God, I do not need to be compelled by law or fear to come to Mass on Sunday and worship Him. I want to worship Him and praise His name.
I love my family, Church, and country. If this is so, then I do not need to be told to revere those who have lawful authority in those places. I love my family; I am willing to honor, revere, and pray for them. I also love my Church and willingly love her leaders and pray for them. I follow the teaching of the Church with joy, trusting that I am hearing the voice of the Lord, who teaches me through the Church. I love my country and pray for our leaders, that God may uphold and guide them. I willingly follow all just laws and work for unity based in truth and for the common good.
I love my neighbors. If so, why would I want to kill them, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually? If I love others, I revere their life and act in ways that build them up, encouraging them and helping them to have a richer, more abundant life rooted in the truth. I would never act recklessly to endanger any of them because I love them.
I love human life. If I love my neighbors, why would I tempt them or exploit them sexually? If I love the human family, why would I endanger it by treating lightly the great sacredness of human sexuality by which God calls us into existence? Why would I want to look at pornography or laugh at crude jokes that demean something so sacred? If I love others, why would I want to gratify myself at their expense?
I love others by respecting what is rightfully theirs. If I love others, why would I wish to steal from them, to harm or endanger what belongs to them, or to deprive them of what is rightfully theirs? Why would I be unjust to others by refusing them just wages? Why would I be unjust to the poor by refusing to help them when it is within my ability to do so? If I have two coats one of them justly belongs to the poor. If I love others why would I steal or act unjustly? I want to help them and am glad when they are blessed. I respect what they rightfully have and share in their joy.
I speak the truth in love. Why would I lie to those whom I love? Why would I seek to harm their reputations or gossip about them? Why would I pass on hurtful things that I don’t even know to be true? Why would I fail to share with them the truth in love? Love rejoices in the truth; why would I lie or suppress the truth?
I rejoice in the good fortune of others. If I love others why would I seek to possess what they have or resent them for what they do have? I love them and am happy for them. Perhaps their blessings mean that I too will be blessed.
I reverence the families of others. Why would I ever seek to harm the marriage or family of another or resent the gift he has in his spouse and family? I am happy for his blessings. I am happy that my friend has a loving wife and well-behaved children. Out of love, I seek to encourage him to rejoice in his gifts!
So it all comes down to love. Love rejoices in God. Love wants whatever God wants. Love rejoices in others and wants what is best for them.
Love is the key, but many of us struggle to love. God can give us a new heart, one that starts loving Him, fully and freely; one that has a deep love—even affection—for everyone. God will do that for us if we want it.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ez 36:26-27).
A thousand questions and doubts may come to mind when we are called to love. Even when we love, we cannot always say yes. Love sometimes must say no; love cannot approve of everything. Love must sometimes correct and reprove. In the end, people know whether you love them or not and they know whether you love God or not. If people know of your love for them and experience it, it is possible for them to receive even the difficult and challenging things you say. Yes, all these doubts and questions are answered by love.
Now I ought to stop, because if Jesus gives the “standing on one foot,” then the preacher must be brief as well. You and I like to complicate things and ask a lot of questions, but the answer is simple enough: love. Yes, all the rest is mere commentary.
This song reminds us that to love God is, first of all, to experience powerfully His love for us. One day it will finally dawn on us that the Lord died for us.
What Jesus teaches in this Sunday’s Gospel is one of those parables that rock our world and challenge our worldly way of thinking. Frankly, that is one of its purposes. We are tempted to side with the laborers who worked the longest, thinking that their being paid the same amount as those who worked only for an hour is unfair.
Think very carefully before asking God to be “fair.” What we really should ask of God is that He be merciful, for if He were fair, we’d all be in Hell right now. We have no innate capacity to stand before God in pure justice; we simply cannot measure up. It is only grace and mercy that will win the day for us. So be very careful about challenging God’s fairness. In fact, when we see Him being merciful to someone else, we ought to rejoice, for it means that we might stand a chance.
There are other aspects of this Gospel that are important to learn from, in particular, the various dispositions of discipleship. As the parable unfolds, we can see five teachings. Let’s consider each in turn.
I. The AVAILABILITY of Discipleship – The text says, A landowner went at dawn to hire laborers to work in his field … He went later and found others standing idle … “Why do you stand here all day idle?”
What are described here are “day workers” or “day laborers.” These were men who stood in public places hoping to be hired for the day. It was and still is a tough life. If you worked, you ate; if you didn’t, you might have little or nothing to eat. They were hired on a day-to-day basis, only when needed. This is a particularly burdensome form of poverty for its uncertainty and instability. Men like these were and are the poorest of the poor.
Notice, however, that their poverty, their hunger, makes them available. Each morning they show up and are ready, available to be hired. Their poverty also motivates them to seek out the landowner and indicate that they are ready and willing to work. The well-fed and the otherwise employed do not show up; they are not available. There’s something about poverty that makes these men available. Because their cup is empty, it is able to be filled.
We are these men. We are the poor who depend upon God for everything. Sometimes we don’t want to admit it, but we are. Every now and then it is made plain to us how poor, vulnerable, and needy we really are; this tends to make us seek God. In our emptiness, poverty, and powerlessness, suddenly there is room for God. Suddenly our glass, too often filled with the world, is empty enough for God to find room. In our pain we stand ready for God to usher us into the vineyard of His Kingdom. An old gospel song says, “Lord, I’m available to you; my storage is empty and I’m available to you.” It is our troubles that make us get up and go out with the poor to seek the Lord and be available to Him. When things are going too well, heaven knows where we are to be found! Another gospel song says, “Lord don’t move my mountain but give me the strength to climb it. Don’t take away my stumbling blocks but lead me all around, ’cause Lord when my life gets a little too easy, you know I tend to stray from thee.
Yes, we might wish for a trouble-free life, but then where would we be? Would we seek the Lord? Would we make ourselves available to God? Would we ever call on Him?
II. The AUTHORITY of Discipleship – The text says, The LandOWNER said, “Go into my vineyard” … HE sent them into HIS vineyard.
Notice that it is the landowner who calls the shots. Too many who call themselves the Lord’s disciples rush into His vineyard with great ideas and grand projects that they have never really asked God about. This passage teaches us that entrance into the vineyard requires the owner’s permission. If we expect to see fruits (payment for the work) at the end of the day, we have to be on the list of “approved workers.”
Fruitful discipleship is based on a call from the Lord. Scripture says, Unless the Lord builds the House, they that labor to build it labor in vain (Ps 127:1). Too many people run off and get married, take new jobs, accept promotions, start projects, and so forth without ever asking God.
True discipleship requires the Lord’s to call us first: “Go into my vineyard.” Got a bright idea? Ask God first. Discern His call with the Church and a good spiritual director, guide, or pastor.
III. The ALLOTMENT of Discipleship – The text says, The vineyard owner came at dawn, 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.
We may wonder why God calls some early and others late; it’s none of our business. He does call at different times. Even those whom He calls early are not always asked to do everything right now. There is a timing to discipleship.
Moses thought he was ready at age 40, and in his haste murdered a man. God said, “Not now!” and made him wait until he was 80.
Sometimes we’ve got something we want to do but the Lord says, “Not yet.” We think, “But Lord, this is a great project and many will benefit!” But the Lord says, “Not yet.” We say, “But Lord, I’m ready to do it now!” And the Lord says, “Not yet.”
Sometimes we think we’re ready, but we’re really not. An old gospel song says, “God is preparing me. He’s preparing me for something I cannot handle right now. He’s making me ready, just because he cares. He’s providing me with what I’ll need to carry out the next matter in my life. God is preparing me. Just because he cares for me. He’s maturing me, arranging me, realigning my attitude. He’s training me, teaching me, tuning me, purging me, pruning me. He’s preparing me.”
IV. The ABIDING of Discipleship – The text says, When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to the foreman, “… summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.”
Notice that the wages are paid in the evening and in the order determined by the landowner. The lesson is simple: we’ve got to stay in the vineyard. Some people start things but do not finish them. If you’re not there at the end of the day, there’s no pay.
Scripture says that we must persevere. Here are three passages carrying this message: But he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mat 24:13). To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life (Rom 2:7). You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (Heb 10:36).
Yes, we must work until evening comes. Saying that we had faith and received all our sacraments when we were young will not suffice. We have to work until evening. An old spiritual says, “Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out.” How about you?
V. The ASSESSMENT of Discipleship – The text says, Those hired first grumbled … “We bore the heat of the day and burdens thereof.”
The workers hired early think of their entrance into the vineyard and its labors as a “burden.” The vineyard, of course, is really the Kingdom of God. Many lukewarm “cradle Catholics” consider the faith to be a burden; they think that sinners “have all the fun.” Never mind that such thinking is completely perverse; it is held by many anyway, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Consider the laborers hired last. Were they having a picnic? Not exactly. Most were resigning themselves to the fact that they and their families would have little or nothing to eat that night. Similarly, most sinners are not “living the life of Riley.” Repeated, lifelong sin brings much grief: disease, dissipation of wealth, regret, loss of family, and addiction. No matter what they tell you, sinners do not have all the fun.
Further, being a Christian is not a burden. If we accept it, we receive a whole new life from Christ: a life of freedom, purity, simplicity, victory over sin, joy, serenity, vision, and destiny.
How do you view the Christian life? Is it a gift, a treasure beyond compare no matter its difficulties? Or is it a burden, a bearing of labor in the heat of the day? Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. The passage goes on to describe our “works” not as burdens but as something God enables us to do: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).
So these are five dispositions of discipleship, as taught by the Lord in this parable.
Note well what the Lord teaches, for too often we want to decide what it means to be a disciple. Beware, for the worst kind of disciple is the one who gets out ahead of the Lord and tries to define his or her own role. Jesus is Lord; let Him lead. Here are some final questions for you: Are you a disciple who is glad at being called, the earlier the better? Or are you like the disciples who grumbled at having to do all the work in the heat of the day? Is discipleship delightful or dreary for you?
The song in the video below says, “I’m available to you.” It reminds us that the owner still seeks souls to enter His vineyard. He wants to use your voice to say to someone, “You, too, go into my vineyard!”
Those who seek to strengthen Holy Matrimony and stem the tide of failed marriages propose many remedies, among them better catechesis, improved marriage preparation, and greater emphasis on the sacrament in sermons. All of these are fine ideas and necessary steps, but let’s also ponder a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today: idealism or unrealistic expectations.
Although we live in cynical times, many people still hold a highly idealistic view of marriage: that it should be romantic, joyful, loving, and happy all the time. It is an ideal rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vincit! (Love conquers all!) Surely, we will live happily ever after the way every story says!
Here’s the problem: Many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Yes, many are wandering about thinking, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” to borrow from a U2 song.
There is no such thing as an ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have been married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world that is governed by a fallen angel, have entered into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Like the graces of any Sacrament, those of Holy Matrimony are necessary not because things are wonderful, but because they are oftentimes difficult. Marriage is meant to sanctify. Like baptism, it offers graces that unfold gradually. The graces unfold to the degree that, and at the speed with which, the couple cooperates with God’s work.
It takes a lifetime of joy and challenge, tenderness and tension, difficulty and growth, in order for a husband and wife to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. Some of God’s gifts come in strange packages. Struggles and irritations are often opportunities to grow and to learn what forgiveness, patience, and suffering are all about. These are precious things to learn and to grow in. Frankly, if we don’t learn to forgive we are going to go to Hell (see Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tension; without tension there is no change.
This may not describe the ideal, happily-ever-after marriage, but it describes the real one: full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, stress, and disappointment.
Cultural expectations – Our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is also seen through the lens of our culture which has gotten very good at supplying comfort: air conditioning, medicines, indoor plumbing and electricity, nearly instant communication, vast numbers of consumer products that are reasonably affordable, etc. This all creates the expectation that everything should be comfortable and everything should be just the way I want it. There is also in our culture an impatience and need for instant gratification culture that that comes from an efficient economy: “Rush shipping,” “Have it delivered today!” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now.” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments along with impatience come very quickly.
There is a saying that “unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly unrealistic notions of the picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality.
Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se; but we must become more sober about our conception of these ideals through the lens of expected comfort in everything and instant gratification. Growth takes time. Life moves through stages. Marriage is hard, but so is life. Cutting and running from the imperfect marriage—as some do rather quickly today—is not the solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage leads to another and perhaps yet another.
In the past, even the relatively recent past, people tended to stick things out, to work through some differences while agreeing to live with others. We would do well to regain something of this appreciation that earthly life is a mixed bag, that there are going to be challenges. Marriage is no different. Though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentment and disappointment if we don’t balance it with the understanding that marriage is hard because life is hard.
Clearly there are many other problems that contribute to today’s high rate of divorce, but an overlooked root is the expectation of an ideal marriage. Yes, many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a newdeal. (We would do well to remember that in a world full of adults behaving like this, it is the children who really get a raw deal.) This is a deeper and less discussed cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.
One could easily reduce this Sunday’s Gospel to trite moral advice such as this: Help people in trouble; be kind to strangers. While these are certainly good thoughts, I would argue that it is about far deeper things than human kindness or ethics. This is a Gospel about the transformative power of God’s love and our need to receive it. It is not a Gospel that can be understood as a demand of the flesh.
Let’s look at the Gospel in three stages.
I. The Radical Requirements of Love – As the Gospel opens, there is a discussion between Jesus and a scholar of the law as to a basic summation of the law. The text says, There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
The scholar quotes the Shema, a summary of the law known to every Jew. Notice how often the word “all” occurs. There is a radical nature to the call of love that cannot be avoided. When it comes to love, the requirement is not to give what is reasonable, to give a little, or perhaps to give a tithe. No, the call is to give God all our heart, mind, being, and strength, and to love our neighbor as though he were our very self.
Our flesh recoils at this sort of open demand; immediately we want to qualify it and quantify it somehow. The flesh seeks refuge in law, asking, “What is the minimum I can do while still meeting the requirements?”
Love, however, is by its very nature open-ended and generous. Love is extravagant; it wants to do more. Love wants to please the beloved. A young man in love does not say to himself, “What is the cheapest gift I can get her for her birthday?” No, he will see an opportunity to show his love; he may even spend too much. Love does not think, “What is the least I can do?” Love thinks, “What more can I do?” Love is expansive and extravagant.
The flesh, that fallen and sin-soaked part of our nature, blanches at such expansive talk and brings out the lawyer in us, negotiating for lesser terms.
II. The Reductionism that Resists Love – After giving the beautiful answer about love, the scholar of the law (and there is a lawyer in all of us) reverts to form and speaks out of his flesh. The text continues, But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In other words, he wants to say, “If I have to love my neighbor, let’s make this ‘neighbor’ category as small and manageable as possible.”
Note how quickly he has retreated into a kind of fearful reaction to the broad expanse of love. His fear is likely rooted in the fact that he has reduced the Shema into a moral platitude, as if he could pull the whole thing off out of his own power. He recoils and demands more favorable terms of surrender. Because he thinks he has to do it all on his own, he tries to reduce the scope to something manageable. Perhaps he is willing to consider the people on his block to be his neighbors, but those two or three blocks away? That’s just too much.
The fearful lawyer in him has started negotiating a kind of debt relief. He seeks to narrow down this “neighbor” category. The Lord isn’t buying it; He will expand the concept even further than the Jewish notions of the day.
To be fair, there is a lawyer in all of us, always negotiating for more favorable terms. And while it is not wrong to ask for some guidance in understanding the law, we all know that the lawyer in us is trying more to evade the terms than fulfill them.
In a way each of us is like the typical teenager. Every teenager seems to be a natural-born lawyer. Give a teenager a rule and he will parse every nuance of it in order to escape its demands or water down the terms.
Some years ago, I was teaching 7th grade religion in our parish’s Catholic school. I told the kids, “Do your work … and no talking!” Within moments, a young lady started singing. Interestingly, her name was Carmen (which means song in Latin). When I rebuked her for breaking the rule, she replied, “I wasn’t talking; I was singing … and you didn’t say anything about singing.”
I remember my thoughts when I was in high school: I couldn’t break the 6th commandment (forbidding adultery) because I wasn’t married and certainly wouldn’t be intimate with a married woman since they were all “old.” Yes, the lawyer in me was at work.
This is how we are in our rebellious, fearful, and resentful flesh. Hearing a law, we go to work at once, parsing every word, examining every nuance so as to evade its intent in every way possible. If we are going to follow the law at all, we’re going to try to find a way that involves the least possible effort.
So often Catholics and other Christians talk more like lawyers than lovers: Do I have to go to confession? How often? Do I have to pray? How long? Do I have to give to the poor? How much? Why can’t I do that? It’s not so bad; besides, everyone else is doing it.
Sometimes, too, we seek to reduce holiness to perfunctory religious observance. Look, I go to Mass; I put something in the collection basket; I say my prayers. What more do you want? Perhaps we think that if we do certain ritual observances (which are good in themselves) we have bought God off and do not need to look at other matters in our life. Because I go to Mass and say a few prayers, I can put a check mark in the “God box” and don’t really need to look at my lack of forgiveness, my harsh tongue, or my lack of generosity.
This is reductionism. It is the lawyer in us at work, seeking to avoid the extravagance of love by hiding behind legal minimalism. It emerges from a kind of fear generated by the notion that we must be able to do everything on our own, by the power of our own flesh. But that’s not possible. You can’t pull it off on your own. But God can, and that is why He commands it of us.
Our fleshly notions have to die. Our spirit must come alive with the virtue of hope that relies trustingly on God’s grace to bring out a vigorous and loving response in us. Law and the flesh say, “What are the minimum requirements?” Love says, “What more can I do?” This is the gift of a loving heart that we must seek.
III. The Response that Reflects Love – The Lord then paints a picture of what His love and grace can accomplish in someone: Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
There is a very important phrase that must not be missed, for it gives the key to the Samaritan man’s actions: “… [he] was moved with compassion ….” Note that the sentence uses the passive voice (“was moved”). That is to say, it was not so much that the Samaritan acted, but that he was acted upon.
More specifically, love and grace have moved within him and are moving him. The Greek verb used here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplagchnisthe), a third-person singular passive verb meaning “to be deeply moved” or “to be moved to compassion.” The verb is also in the aorist tense, signifying that something has happened but also that it has a kind of ongoing dimension to it.
Why is this phrase “was moved” so important? Because it indicates the power of the gift of grace. So many of our fears about what God asks and what love demands are rooted in the idea that we must accomplish them out of our own flesh—that is not the message of this Gospel. In the New Covenant, the keeping of the Law is received, not achieved. The keeping of the commandments is a work of God within us to which we yield. Keeping the commandments and fulfilling the law are the results of love, not the causes of it.
We do not know the Samaritan’s history; the Lord does not provide it to us. He is telling a story and the Samaritan is only a literary character in it.
We must clearly understand the teaching of today’s Gospel: Our receiving and experiencing of love is and must be the basis of our keeping of the law. Experiencing and receiving God’s love for us equips, empowers, and enables us to respond extravagantly as joyful lovers rather than as fearful lawyers.
Love lightens every load. When we love God and love other people, we want to do what love requires. Even if there are difficulties that must be overcome, love makes us eager to respond anyway.
When I was in the 7th grade, I found myself quite taken by a pretty girl named Shelly. I was “in love.” One day she was walking down the hall struggling to carry a pile of books to the library; I saw my chance! I jumped in and offered to carry her books. Mind you, I was skinny as a rail with no muscles at all, and those textbooks were heavy—but I was glad to do it despite the effort. Love does that; it lightens every load and makes us eager to help, even at great cost.
Perhaps it’s just a silly story of an awkward teenager, but it demonstrates what love does. It “moves” us to be generous, kind, merciful, patient, and even extravagant. We don’t do what we do because we have to, but because we want to.
The Samaritan in this story, was “moved” with and by love to overcome race, nationality, fear, and danger. He generously gave his time and money to save a fellow traveler.
Let love lift you. Let it empower you, equip you, and enable you! Go to the Lord and pray for a deeper experience of His love. Open the door of your heart and let the love of God in. Go to the foot of the cross and remember what the Lord has done for you. Let what He has done be so present in your mind and heart that you are grateful and different. Let God’s love come alive in you.
As a witness, I promise you that love lightens every load and makes us eager to keep the commandments, to help others, to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, to be kind, and to speak the truth in love to others. Yes, I am a witness that love can and does change us. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. Love has lifted me and lightened every load of mine.
Again, today’s Gospel is not mere moral advice. The main point is that we must let the Lord’s love into our heart. If we do, we will do what love does and we will do it extravagantly—not because we have to but because we want to.
The grace of love lightens every load and equips us for every good work.
This song says, “More of His saving fullness see, more of His love who died for me”
The Gospel for Sunday has a number of “sayings” of the Lord Jesus, which together amount to a kind of litany of love. It is a setting forth of the gifts that He, by His grace, is accomplishing and will accomplish in us. Let’s consider the wonderful gifts of grace.
I. Power – Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”
Here is a fundamental theology of grace: keeping the commandments and mandates of the Lord’s Word is the fruit of His love, not the cause of it. The Lord says that if you love Him, the keeping of the commandments is sure to follow. Note that we do not initiate this love, God does. Scripture says, We love because he first Loved us (1 John 4:19).
No one can give what he does not have, and no one can possess what he has not received. God is the author and initiator of love. Love always starts with Him. The Lord is not setting up some sort of loyalty test here, as if He were saying, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” That is not the gospel! The gospel is that God loved us before we were ever born, before we could do anything to merit His love. He loved us when we were dead in our sins, and He took the initiative to love us even when we hated Him and crucified Him.
If we will accept this love, it will enable us to love God with the same love with which He loves us. With His love in us, we will begin to love what He loves and whom He loves. We will love holiness, forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, chastity, and generosity. We will love our brethren—even our enemies. Why? Because God loves them. When His love is in our heart, so is His love for them.
Do you understand this? Love enables us to keep His Word, to live it and to love it. When I was young, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At the time, I thought square dancing was silly, but my love for her meant that I started to love what she loved; I came to love her family, too. If we let love have its way, it changes our heart and our desires.
If you let love have its way you will keep the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not its cause. Love is the power of grace at work in us to love what and whom God loves. Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).
II. Presence – [Jesus says,] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
One of Jesus’ great desires was to restore us to unity with the Father. Jesus was crazy about His Father and earnestly desired to have us know Him and love Him more deeply.
If we will but accept the Father’s love and His shalom, offered through Jesus, we will have a tender and joyful relationship with our Abba, our Father. Jesus often described His Father almost as doting. He is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one. He is like a woman who loses a coin, sweeps diligently to find it, and then celebrates by throwing a party more costly than the coin itself. He is like a father whose son effectively tells him to “drop dead,” but who, when the son finally returns, runs out to meet him and has a feast in celebration.
Do you grasp this? The Father loves you and Jesus has reconciled you to Him. Now run to Him; run to Abba, God. If you take one step, He’ll take two, and then He’ll start running to embrace you!
This is the gospel message: Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father at the Father’s own request. The Father loves you. Now run to Him and watch Him run to you. He does not want distance; He wants intimate presence, love, and embrace.
III. Perfection– [Jesus says,] I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.
We all know that the Christian journey is not accomplished in an instant. Rather, we make this journey with God, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and makes us mindful of all that Jesus has done for us and taught us. Little by little, we are given a new mind, a new heart, a new walk, and a new and better life. May God who has begun a good work in bring it to perfection (cf Phil 1:6).
If we are open to Him, He is faithful, and He will do it. The process may be slow, but that is only because we have foreheads of brass and necks of iron (cf Is 48:4). God is faithful and patient. I am a witness; if He can change me, He can change you. He has promised to do so, and He will.
We will be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf Rom 12:2), for the Holy Spirit will bring to our mind all that the Lord is and all that He taught. Let the Lord change your mind and heart. If He does that, the rest will follow. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny—and it all begins with the mind.
One of the gifts of grace is the renewing of our mind, and it leads to total transformation.
IV. Peace– [Jesus says,] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, “I am going away, and I will come back to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.
What is the gift of peace? Peace is shalom; it is more than the absence of conflict. It is the presence in the relationship of everything that should be there. Peace is the experience that everything is all right.
For us, peace is access once again to the Father. It is being able once again to walk with Him in love, in and through Jesus Christ. We don’t just walk with Him in some earthly garden paradise, as Adam and Eve did. Rather, we walk with Him in Heaven. In Jesus we are seated with the Father in honor at His right hand.
So, what does it mean when the same Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One” (Jn 10:30), also says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28)?
Theologically, we can distinguish two ways of understanding this text. Many theologians emphasize that Jesus is referring to His human nature when he says, “The Father is greater than I.” As God, He is equal to His Father, but as man, He is less than His Father. Other theologians remind us that, even in terms of His divinity, the Father has a certain greatness as the source in the Trinity. All the members of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, but the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Principle of the Deity). The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both. Because Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity, He is in effect saying, “I delight that the Father is the principle of my being, even though I have no origin.”
Devotionally, Jesus is saying that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father. He’s crazy about Him. He’s always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father greater, He in effect says, “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”
This is the source of our peace. With Jesus, we love the Father and always do what pleases Him. Jesus “goes to the Father,” but He takes us with Him, for we are members of His mystical Body. In Jesus, we enter the holy of holies and sit next to the Father in love and intimacy.
Here, then, are some important gifts of grace. It is up to us to lay hold of them and to live out of them. The Lord promises them to us, so they are ours. If at times they seem distant, reach out and take back what the devil stole from you. These are gifts of the Lord’s resurrected grace.
This song that speaks of peace and presence, not to mention power:
The title of this sermon uses the word legacy, which refers to something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor.
Perhaps the most accessible image of this is money. If I receive 100 million dollars from a dying relative, I can the money to start living differently. My bills, which now seem overwhelming, can be paid with just the interest earned from my newfound wealth. I can start enjoying things I thought I could never afford in the past. In other words, a legacy can completely change the way I live and open up new possibilities.
It is in this sense that we explore today’s Gospel, wherein our Lord sets forth for us a new power: the power of love. If we tap into it and draw from its riches, we are able to live differently. If we will but lay hold of it, there is a kind of legacy, a deposit of riches from which we can draw.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages and discover what the Lord has done for us and has left us by way of a legacy.
I. The Provision and Pivot of the Passion – The text says, When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.
Note how the text speaks in the present tense: the Son of Man is glorified. The aorist tense of the verb (used in the Greek translation) indicates something that has begun and is underway. Judas’ going forth has started a process that is now underway and will, by God’s grace, result in liberation and glorification for Jesus and for us. The Lord Jesus is no mere victim. Everything is unfolding exactly as foretold. The Son of Man will suffer but, in the end, will be glorified. This glory will make available for us a whole new life.
Now this leads us to a question: What happened when the Son of God died and rose for me? This question is not posed in order to receive merely the answer from the catechism. Expressed more deeply, these are the questions: What difference does the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make for me today? Are they just ancient historical events that are meaningful only because others say so? Or have I grasped and begun to lay hold of what Jesus has done for me?
Scripture says that Jesus’ death is glorification and new life for us: We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have a whole new life (Rom 6:4-7).
In other words, Jesus, the Son of Man, is glorified in His passion and is destroying the power of sin and death by His cross and resurrection. We need to spend our life pondering what happened when the Son of God died for us. It is not merely some historical event. It is that, but it is far more. To the degree that we will lay hold of this saving work, we will come to see and experience the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ to put sin to death and to bring new life forth in Christ.
Of this, I am a witness, for I have seen the power of the cross to quell sinful fears, worldly lusts, and endless preoccupations. On account of what Jesus endures for us, He ascends on high not to leave us but to open the way for us to a greater and fuller life. It is a life in which we see sin put to death and many graces and charisms come alive: charisms of confidence, joy, and hope; it is an increasingly victorious life. It is up to us to grasp this saving work and the new life it offers us by the power of the cross of Christ and Him crucified.
This is the moment of glory, the pivotal point of all things. This the glory and the basis of a new life. Because of what Jesus does at this moment, His glory and ours is ushered in; it is all based on this.
II. The Power and Produce of the Passion – The text says, I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
When we hear the phrase “Love one another as I have loved you.” we can fall into the trap of thinking, “Uh oh, I have to do more! I have to try harder. Because He loved me, now I, with the power of my own flesh, have to love others.” However, this is not about rules; it’s about relationship. Jesus is not just saddling us with more responsibilities. He is equipping, empowering, and enabling us to love with the same love with which He has loved us.
The point here is to let Jesus love you, to experience His love, and with this love, experienced and embraced, be empowered to love others.
The Lord does not just say, “Love.” Rather, He says, “Receive love and then love with the love that you have received.” Scripture says,
We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love! If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love (John 15:9).
In other words, we have the power to keep His commandments and to love others to the degree that we receive and abide—that is, remain—in His love. We love with His love, not merely with our own love.
Do not miss this point! Do you see it? This is the message: by the power of His love and grace we are empowered to love, to keep His commandments, and to see our life changed. Today’s Gospel is not a moralism that tells us to obey a bunch of rules. It is that God has sent His Son, who died for us and rose to give us a wholly new and transformed life, a life that keeps the commandments and loves others with the power of God’s own love, received and experienced.
III. The Proof Positive of the Passion – The text says, This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
We have discussed many times on this blog the fact that the usual Greek word for “know” is richer than our modern notion of “intellectual knowing.” The Greek word for merely knowing something intellectually is oida, but the verb used in today’s Gospel is γινώσκω (ginosko), which refers to experiential knowing, to knowing in a deep, personal, and experiential way.
Thus, the point is that others will notice the legacy of love living us in a very real and experiential way. The faith, hope, and love that we proclaim will not, and cannot, be a mere intellectualism; it must be something that others can see and experience at work within us.
Hence, the proof, the evidence, the picture of God’s love, is not some vague feeling or a mere intellectual attribute in us. It is a powerful and dynamic force that equips, empowers, and enables us to love. The Lord says here that His love is something that changes us in a way that others will notice. It changes our relationships in a palpable, tangible, and noticeable way. We notice and experience its power and so do others.
Yes, we will love even our enemies, and we will do this not out of the power of our own flesh or because have to, but because we want to receive, and have received from the Lord, a new heart and the power to love.
Note also that the love we have will not be a merely sentimental one. It will be a true love, a love rooted in truth. It will be a love like Jesus has, one that does not compromise the truth or water down its demands. It will be a love that speaks the truth but does so not merely to win an argument but to summon the other to fulfillment and flourishing. This is what Jesus did. He loved, but He loved in truth and integrity. Nothing would compromise His love for His Father or the glorious vision and plan of the Father for all His children to abide in truth and holiness.
The proof positive that the legacy of love is at work within us is, first of all, our own transformed lives, which others can see. Second, it is the love that others can and do experience from us. Granted, this love will sometimes challenge and irritate others, but it is a love that is difficult to deny, an integrity that is hard to impugn, a love that, even if disconcerting, is real, palpable, and obvious.
This, then, is the legacy of love. It is a treasure, an inheritance that the Lord Jesus has left us to draw upon. This love is not our work; it is not our wealth, not our power. It is all His. He has left it for us to draw upon. Will we? Or will we make excuses about how we are not able to do the things to which He has summoned us? Don’t you get it? It is not our power, not our love; it is His, and He has left us this legacy, this inheritance, to draw upon.
Lay hold of this power, this love, and let it transform your life. Let it turn you into proof positive of the power of the cross to transform lives and to bestow new life.
Here are some of the lyrics from the song “Love Lifted Me”:
Souls in danger look above, Jesus completely saves,
He will lift you by His love, out of the angry waves.
He’s the Master of the sea, billows His will obey,
He your Savior wants to be, be saved today.
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me!
Hillel the Elder, sometimes referred to as Rabbi Hillel, was a Jewish religious leader who lived shortly before Jesus’ time. There is a famous story told of him in which he was challenged by a potential convert to teach him the entire Torah while “standing on one foot.” In other words, can you distill the essence and present it succinctly?
That same theme may be behind the question that is raised today by the scholar of law, who asks, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”
In answering while “standing on foot,” Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד.
Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād. Hear, O Israel,The Lord our God is Lord alone!
The fuller text Jesus cites is from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,with all your soul,with all your mind,and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today (Deut 6:4-6).
Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Do not miss the point that the discussion of the greatest “law” centers on the word “love.” Most of us miss this connection between the law and love.
Particularly in Western culture, we tend to put love and law just about as far apart from each other as any two things can be. For us, the law is about police officers and courtrooms, about forcing people to do things under threat of some penalty. Love, on the other hand, is about doing things willingly, because we want to rather than because we have to.
As Jesus insists and the ancient Jewish Shema articulates, love and law are in fact together; the law is an articulation of love.
Consider that a man who really loves his wife does not need a law to tell him that he may not physically or verbally abuse her but rather must support, protect, and encourage her. Nevertheless, though he may not need the existence of the law in writing, he is in fact following the law of love when he observes these and other norms. There is a language of love, a law of love, an outworking of love’s works and fruits. In the end, love does what love is, and love is supportive, enthusiastic, even extravagant in keeping its own norms and laws. Love does what love is.
Thus, when asked about the law the Lord just says that we should love. Yes, love God passionately, with your whole heart, soul, and strength. As you do this, you will love what and whom He loves, for this is the natural fruit of love. The more one loves God, the more one begins to love His laws, His vision, what He values. Yes, all the commandments flow from loving God. Real love has its roots; it has its laws, methods, and modes.
Here, then, is the whole law, standing on one foot: love God. Let His love permeate you completely and every other commandment will implicitly flow from this love.
When we love God, we stop asking unloving questions like these:
Do I have to pray? For how long? Do I have to go to confession? How often? Do I have to go to Mass? How often? Where can I find the shortest and most convenient one? Do I have to read God’s Word? Do I have to make God’s teachings the priority of my life, overruling all else? Do I need to honor and care for my parents? Do I need to respect lawful authority and contribute to the common good? Do I need to respect life from conception to natural death? Do I need to work to cherish and safeguard the lives of others? Do I need to live chastely, reverencing the gift of sexuality that is at the heart of human life and family?
Love does not ask whether we must respect each other enough to speak the truth in love, to be men and women of our word. It does not wonder whether it is acceptable to steal from others or to fail to give them what is justly due. It does not wonder whether we should be generous to the poor rather than greedy, or whether to be appreciative and satisfied rather than covetous.
No, love does not ask questions like these, for it already knows the answer; it lives the answer.
Love is the law, standing on one foot, and all the rest is commentary.
God is merciful and does supply the commentary: in His Scriptures and in the vast Tradition of the Church. Praise God for it all.
The saints say, “If God wants it then I want it. If God doesn’t want it then I don’t want it.” Is that the way most of us talk? Is that the way most of us talk? Many of us are heard to say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad; everyone else has it.” That doesn’t really sound like lovers talking does it? Somehow the saints knew the law of God and could say it standing on one foot. How about us?
All the commentary is nice, and surely needed, but don’t miss the point: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,with all your soul,with all your mind,and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.