Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51
1 Thessalonians 1:5-10
The questions continue. Last week we saw the transition from Jesus questioning others to them questioning Him, beginning with the malicious inquiry into whether one ought to pay the Roman tax or not. The question was brought up such that no matter the answer the Lord could face the penalty of death. The question this week, while probably not entirely pure in motive, was a bit more benign. To ask the question of which commandment was the greatest wasn’t so much a move to have the Lord killed as much as it was a sort of litmus test. The question of the greatest commandment was a commonly discussed topic in the days of the Lord and the response would often give insight into the individual’s theological beliefs and their ranking of what’s most important.
As Christians, we shouldn’t be surprised at the response of Jesus. I didn’t hear anyone gasp in shock as I read the passage just now and none of you has stood up and shouted that I’m a fool for believing it. It’s the basic premise of much of our daily interaction: love God, love neighbor. We know. Maybe too well. We’ve become used to it, comfortable with it. But the idea is a challenging one because it’s not something that can simply be marked off as complete. Many laws are such that they could lead us to a sort of ‘checklist Catholicism’. “Have you killed anyone?” “No.” Did you steal?” “No.” Those are clear ideas, black and white. But “Have you loved God?” and “Have you loved neighbor?” are never quite so clear because our love is often changes over time, depending on life’s circumstances, and a whole host of reasons that you and I know from lived experience. Ultimately, love isn’t just a yes-no type of question. To discern how we live out the commandment of love we have to look also at two other aspects: how we love and why we love.
When I was younger (at the Saturday Vigil Mass I said ‘young’ and the congregation chuckled, as I’m still very young compared to many of the them) I was a pretty messy child. My room generally looked like a pig lived there and it had recently been hit by a tornado and a hurricane one after the other. And inevitably there would come a time where my mom asked me to clean my room and I (not so politely) let her know that I didn’t want to. After the usual back and forth of me trying to wiggle out of this chore, I submitted and went to work on my room. How did I do it? By shoving everything in the closet, in my dresser, under my dresser, behind the tv cabinet, under the bed, and anywhere else I could hide stuff to make things look nice. All the while I was muttering under my breathe “I don’t wanna clean this stupid room. Stupid mom. I was gonna go have fun but not now…” and so on. Any merit that I might have gained from listening to my mom was immediately lost (and almost always wound up in the negative) because I did things not out of love but because I wanted to get what I wanted and the way to get it was to do what mom wanted, and I did it only begrudgingly at that. And it’s easy to do the same in the course of our daily life with others.
A thousand times a day we are faced with opportunities to love God and others. Sometimes we do really well. Sometimes we fail miserably. But the key is not simply doing or not doing things, but is the how and why behind them. I can come to Mass every week, but if I come simply to fulfill an obligation and don’t actually put forth an effort to worship, it’s not really an act of love that gains us much merit. I can do chores at home, tasks at work, homework for school, or any number of things, but if I do them without the right how and why - if I pursue them only to satisfy my desires - then I don’t really fulfill the call to love as much as I could otherwise. But with time and effort we can come to a way of living that helps us to see things much more like the way Jesus sees things. If we think rightly, then every action can become an action of love that can inspire us to do it more perfectly.
I may have mentioned it already, but it comes to mind again the trip I made to Madonna House in Ontario, Canada. Stacking wood for several hours. A menial task if I’ve ever done one! And yet the guy I was working with called to mind how each log would be used by someone to heat their home, to cook food, and provide for various other needs through the winter. With a little perspective things changed and each log stacked was a little act of charity. And the same can be with us. Each chore at home, each task at work, each kind deed not known by another soul. Everything, when we have our hearts in the right place, can become an act of love toward God or our neighbor.
This week I want to conclude a little differently, rather than just something to think about, I want to give you all a little homework. I want each of you to take a few minutes each night this week and reflect back upon your day. Find just three ways that you tried to show love to God or neighbor and, reflecting upon those three things, ask yourself ‘How did I love?’ and ‘Why did I love?’ When we ask these questions of ourselves they can help us to see where we might need to grow in charity toward others and sometimes it affirms us in the good we’re already doing. It’s simple – How did I love? Why did I love? – but when we approach the world through that lens, the lens of Jesus, the whole changes and our hearts change. How and Why.