All You Need is Love

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St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine once said of the moral life, “Love, and do what you will.”  He preached this in a sermon on love. The point St. Augustine was making is that anything we do ought to be rooted in charity.  He says, “let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

His sermon has been paraphrased by others as, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”

Sadly, many have latched on to the first part of that statement without understanding the second part.  “Love God and do whatever you please” sounds to some like a license for moral relativism.

Moral relativism holds that there is no such thing as objective morality.  Acts are neither “good” nor “evil” but are made good or evil by some other consideration, such as our intentions.  There are those who argue that anything we do with a loving intention is good.  Sex outside of marriage is good as long as you love each other.  Killing another person is good if your intention is to end their suffering.  Lying to someone is good if it is done to spare their feelings.

But St. Augustine did not say, “Do whatever you want, as long as you have good intentions.”  He would argue vehemently against moral relativism, just as he argued against the heresies of his day.  In the moral life, St. Augustine puts love first.  Love – then do as you will.  Because true love desires only the good of the beloved.  If you love God first and love Him truly, then you will only desire that which is pleasing to Him.  If you love God, you will desire to follow His commandments.  If you love God, you will want to conform your will to His.  St. Augustine doesn’t give us a license to do as we want, but a reason to do what God wants — that reason is love.

St. Paul’s statement in this Sunday’s second reading can be similarly misunderstood.  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal 5:14).  Some may read this out of context, just as they do with Augustine, and take it as permission to ignore all the rest of God’s teachings, as long as they “love” their neighbors.  And by “love” they mean “generally have good feelings about.”

But love is so much more than good feelings.  Love is an act of the will.  Love means desiring the good of the beloved.  To desire the good of others and then actively work for that good is no easy task.  The Ten Commandments tell us specific things that are totally incompatible with love of neighbor, and therefore simply must not be done.  Don’t murder.  Don’t commit adultery.  Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Don’t covet, and so forth.  These are sins against love.

But love goes so much farther than simply not hurting anyone.  Love seeks their good.  Jesus doesn’t do away with the Ten Commandments, but takes us beyond them.  He teaches us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner.  He teaches us to forgive those who wrong us, and pray for those who persecute us.  All of this is wrapped up in the simple command to love your neighbor.  This is why St. Paul says the whole law is fulfilled in this statement.  Not because it is the only commandment, but because it lies at the heart of every commandment.

Christ has freed us from the bonds of sin and death.  But that freedom is not a license to do as we please.  We can freely choose to enslave ourselves once more to sin.  St. Paul warns us, “Do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love” (Gal 5:13).

In the end, loving service of our neighbor is loving service of God.  Jesus personally identifies with those in need; the sick, the suffering and the poor.  “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Mt 25:40).  For each of us is made in the image of God and is beloved by God.

It can be a hard to serve our neighbors.  It can be a challenge to love some people.  But we can love the image of God in them.  We can love them because God loves them, we love God, and therefore we love what God what God loves.  We can desire and work for their good because God desires their good.  We can help our neighbors draw closer to Christ, and in so doing become more Christ-like ourselves.

Love, and do what you will.  The whole law is fulfilled in this statement.