Saturday, October 22, 2011

Command to Love

30th Sunday OT Year A 2011

    In today's gospel, people are trying to trick Jesus again. You may have noticed that this has been a recurring theme these last couple of weeks. But, in the midst of these treacherous discussions we receive some of the most profound teaching on what it means to be Christian. Today is no exception: what is the greatest commandment: love!

    As we reflect on love, it makes me ponder a few things. First of all, how can God really command us to love? In other words, is love the kind of thing that can be commanded? Secondly, why is love the greatest commandment? Finally, how can we put this commandment into practice?

It seems to me that the words "love" and "commandment" are incompatible. I would say that love, by definition, is a free act of the will whereby we give of ourselves to another. This seems to be what Jesus is talking about when he says we are to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul. Nothing is to be held back, but we are to give ourselves completely to God. But, I would also argue, that if we are commanded to love, it removes something essential to what it means to be human: our free will. Normally when we think about commandments they are designed to override the free will of another. Parents out there, you have to command your children to do all kinds of icky things that they wouldn't want to do on their own: clean your room, eat your peas, be nice to your sister, etc. Is the command to love, then, the same kind of thing?

Jesus did not come up with this great command on his own. In fact, this command comes from the Old Testament. In the book of Deuteronomy we hear the great Shema prayer of Israel: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul. The command to love never sits in a vacuum. It is always intimately tied to what comes before it: The Lord is God, the Lord alone. In other words, the Lord first loves us, he is our God, he has chosen us to be his own: therefore, we must love him. God does not command love in an arbitrary way, nor does the command to love God take away our free will. Rather, the command to love is nothing more than God telling us precisely how we are to enter into a relationship with him. God has first loved us, if we are going to enter into this relationship, we love him back with our whole heart, mind, soul, everything. Rather than being a denial of our free will, loving God is the completion of our free will.

Why is this the greatest commandment? Jesus is telling us today that the whole law, all the commandments and precepts of the Bible and of the Church are aimed at one thing: love. Here is a quote from St. Augustine that says it so well: "Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good." If we love God above all things, love our neighbor as ourselves, we will be living lives of virtue and holiness. If we really loved God above all things, our neighbor as ourselves we would not need laws like: you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal. All these laws lead to love, but they are not the same as love. But, if we love, these laws will have no meaning for us. This is why the Catechism calls love the fulfillment of the law.

But, this is easy to say, hard to do. How do we put this into action? St. Paul uses a great word today: imitate. He applauds the Thessalonians for being his imitators. For Paul, being a Christian meant imitating him, because he imitated Christ. Our life of discipleship is a life of trying to imitate Jesus. There is no greater love than to lay your life down for another. Right here on this cross we see what love looks like. In Jesus we see the greatest command being carried out: his self-gift of love brought about the new life of the Resurrection. By looking up the cross of Christ we see how to follow this great command: we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves when we lay down our lives in service of others.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Give to God what belongs to God: Thank you John Paul II

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A


 

Today in the gospel Jesus refuses to get caught up in a political squabble. The Pharisees are trying to trick him into getting involved in the controversy between Church and state, between the temple and the Roman authorities. But, as he often is able to do, Jesus cuts right through to the heart of the issue, Issues still important for us today.


 

First of all, we all rely upon secular authority. Just as in the time of Jesus, we have a dependency upon the world around us. We use American currency, drive on public roads, depend upon secular police and armies for security, many of you are employed by the State. Therefore, we have a responsibility to participate in the world around us: we have to pay taxes and obey the laws. Even more, as members of this society we have a responsibility to reshape it, to guide and form the world around us. This is why we must vote responsibly and demand accountability from our civic leaders. We render to Caesar what is Caesar's when we act as responsible citizens, never ashamed of our faith, but rather bringing our faith into the public square.


 

But, I think Jesus is making another, more subtle point. How do we know that the coin in the gospel belongs to Caesar? It is engraved with Caesar's image. Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar is pretty straight forward, but then Jesus includes the next line: render to God what belongs to God. What is it then that belongs to God? If we know that the coin belongs to Caesar because it is made in his image, what is it that belongs to God, what is made in his image? The answer, of course, is all of us.


 

We read in the book of Genesis that God made us in his image and likeness. This is an important belief. Our belief in the dignity and goodness of every human person is based upon the central teaching: we are made in God's image and likeness. Render to God what belongs to God, means that we belong to God, and our lives must be given to him in service.


 

Today we remember a great apostle of this message. In all the parishes of our diocese this weekend we are celebrating the beatification of John Paul II. John Paul tirelessly defended the inherent dignity of the human person. Having lived through both Nazi and Communist occupations of Poland, he knew that the dignity of the human person was under attack. The person is not simply a cog in the machine, not simply a statistic, the person is made in God's image and likeness, it is to be respected and defended.


 

Another of John Paul's contributions was his teaching about human fulfillment. The human person, he used to say, will only be happy by giving his/her life away. The key to happiness is self-donation. This is precisely what Jesus is telling us in the gospel: give to God what belongs to God means that we must give our lives to Christ in order to fulfill our destiny and calling. This is something easy to say, but hard to carry out, because giving our lives means something different for each one of us. For me, it means giving my life in service as a priest. For you, it might mean giving your life in service as a husband and father, a wife and mother, a consecrated religious person, whatever. Each of us has a separate vocation, but none of us are called to selfishness, none of us is called to vainglory, or pride. We are all called to give to God what belongs to God, namely our very selves.

    John Paul II was an amazing person, I often wonder how he was able to give so much of himself. I was deeply impressed by reading his biography, of the many things he did, the places he visited, the way he was able to give of himself. I think I can safely say that the source of his strength was the Holy Eucharist. Every morning Blessed John Paul II would arise early, spend time praying before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and celebrate Mass. Here on this altar, here at St. Matthew's Cathedral in South Bend, we find the same Eucharist, the same Jesus, the same strength that made John Paul into a holy person. The Eucharist, which is the self-donation of Christ, should change us into giving people, ready to give our lives for Christ. Blessed John Paul II: pray for us.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Joy of the Vineyard

27th Sunday of OT Year A 2011

    Jesus again speaks to us today with a parable. But, this parable is quite complicated. We notice at first that Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and the elders. In other words, he is speaking to the religious leadership of Israel. Therefore, the parable seems directed to them, they are the ones who have not accepted the prophets, nor accepted the person of Jesus. While it is certainly true that we can learn from this parable, the Christian disciple is not the focus of the parable until the very end. Jesus says that the kingdom of God will be given to a people that will produce its fruit.

    We can say, then, that the kingdom of God has been given to us. But, it has not simply been handed to us so that we can enjoy it for our own sake. Rather, Christ expects us, the new tenants, to produce fruit. Do we produce fruit? It is a simple question, but certainly an important one. Do we see the production of fruit as our vocation in life?

    Very often I see the faith as something that feeds me, something that fills me with joy and hope. I often see that faith as something I receive. But, this is an interesting passage, the Kingdom will be given, not to another people so that they may enjoy it. But, it is given to another people so that they will produce fruit. In fact, the wicked people in the parable are criticized precisely because they kept the rich harvest of the vineyard to themselves. They didn't allow the fruit of the vineyard beyond the walls of the vineyard.

    This leads me to another point. What is the fruit of which we speak in the gospel? Vineyards, of course, produce grapes. But, in the ancient world grapes were used to make wine. Wine is a biblical image for joy: psalm 4 says you have filled my heart with a greater joy than when grain and new wine abound, or Ecclesiastes 9 says says: drink you wine with a joyful heart. So I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say that the vineyard is a sign or our relationship with God. It is a place of safety and security: God has built a wall, a tower, etc. It is a place where good fruit grows, where the choicest wine is produced. The vineyard of the Lord is a place of Joy. Here we find security and joy. But, the point of this vineyard is to produce fruit that spreads. The joy of Christianity is not simply for our enjoyment, it is meant to be spread. Joy is certainly a gift that we receive from God, but it is meant to flow beyond ourselves.

    Joy is often misunderstood. Often when we hear the word we envision some kind of bubbly, ephemeral kind of joy. This is more like enthusiasm, which has its place but is not the same as joy. Rather, joy is the solid internal disposition of the believer that allows him/her to live in the world.

    Look at St. Paul. Today in the second reading we hear some encouraging words: have no anxiety, the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds, think about what is pure, honorable, lovely, just, the God of peace will be with you. These are wonderful words that might easily bring us some hope. But, we must remember that Paul wrote these words while in prison. He was awaiting trial where he would be put to death, and yet he writes have no anxiety!!! I think it is precisely joy that allows Paul to remain steady and calm while in prison. Paul's heart was so set on Christ that no matter what his external situation, his heart was still focused on Christ. This is the definition of joy in my book, not bubbly enthusiasm, but solid faith in the power and love of Christ. And, Paul did not simply keep this joy to himself, he is writing to the Philippians so that joy might continue to spread.

    Today we have a wonderful opportunity to receive our Lord in Word and in Sacrament. We have a chance to deepen our faith, to grow in our relationship with Christ. This relationship brings us the joy that allows us to deal with whatever life might throw at us. But, this joy will not be complete unless we share it with others. No wonder then that at the end of every Mass we are sent to Love and to serve the Lord. We might as well say: the Mass is ended, go in peace to spread the joy of God's kingdom in the world.