The Love Behind the Law
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
It’s easy to characterize Catholic moral teaching as a list of “Thou Shalt Nots.” All too often we are told what the Church is against. Even the Ten Commandments are mostly framed in negative terms. Don’t worship false gods. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t covet your neighbor’s possessions or spouse. Don’t, don’t, don’t… Is Christian morality just about memorizing a list of things we aren’t supposed to do?
Someone suggested once that the reason the Ten Commandments are mostly phrased in negative terms is because it is easier to list the few things we can’t do than to list the innumerable things that we can do. But there is more to it than that. The moral life is not about jumping through God’s hoops and obeying His law so as not to offend Him. God is not some egotistical tyrant who needs to have His will obeyed in order to be appeased. God is Lord, but He is also Father. What Jesus shows us in this Sunday’s gospel is that there is a love behind the law.
When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, He replies:
You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
Jesus is quoting from the Hebrew scripture, specifically Deuteronomy 6:5. The first and greatest law is to love God above all else, with all of your being. Loving God first is a matter of justice. And I don’t just mean that we have an obligation to love God first because He created us, though this is certainly true. It’s simpler than that. It is right that we should love God the most because God is the most lovable.
To love someone means is to desire their good. When we love someone who has faults (and we all have faults) we don’t love them because of their faults, but in spite of them, because we are able to look past their failings to see and love what is good about them. It is the good within the other person that we love. God is entirely and perfectly good; therefore God is entirely and perfectly lovable. God, who is Love, and the source of all love, rightly deserves the fullness of our love.
But Jesus does not stop there.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Jesus commands us not only to love God, but to love our neighbor (also a command from the Old Testament, in Leviticus 19:18). Why is this? Did your neighbor create you? Did he or she give you being? Is your neighbor perfectly good, as God is? No. So why must we love our neighbor? Proper love of neighbor comes from proper love of God.
To love God rightly means loving what God loves. And God loves each one of us, despite our sins. He sees and loves the good that is within each one of us. Therefore how can we claim to love God if we refuse to love those God loves? Furthermore, as we were reminded in last week’s gospel, we are each made in God’s image. How can we claim to love God if we do not also love those who share His image and likeness? There is no way around it: true love of God means loving our neighbors. Not just wishing them well, or having affectionate feelings about them, but loving them as we love our very selves, desiring the best for them, and working for their good. This is why at the final judgment, as we see described in Matthew 25, Jesus reveals that we will be judged according to how we loved the least of our brethren. However much we love the least of our neighbors is how much we love God.
The Heart of the Matter
It is interesting that when Jesus is asked about the moral law, He does not frame His answer in negative terms. There is no “thou shalt not.” Jesus instead tells us what we must do, and that is to love. He doesn’t say this as a refutation of the Ten Commandments, but in order to show us the love of God that the law rests upon. “The whole law and the prophets depend upon these two commandments.”
In other words, there is nothing in the moral law that does not relate directly to following one of these two commandments of love. We can use the Ten Commandments as an example. The first three commandments teach us how to rightly love God. We can have no other gods before Him. We must not take His name in vain. And we must keep the Sabbath holy. If we fail to follow any of these, we are not loving God rightly.
Likewise the next seven commandments teach us how to love our neighbor. We must honor our father and mother. We must not kill. We must not commit adultery. We must not steal. We must not bear false witness. We must not covet our neighbor’s possessions, nor covet our neighbor’s spouse. Doing any of these things means we have grievously failed to love our neighbor.
The moral code enshrined in the Ten Commandments is there to help us learn how to rightly love. But it is only a starting point. If we murder, if we steal, if we lie, and commit adultery, obviously we are doing grave violence to our neighbor. These actions are totally incompatible with love. This is why God specifically forbids them. But avoiding them does not make us paragons of virtue. We cannot say, “Well, I haven’t murdered anyone today or slept with someone else’s spouse, so I’m doing alright.” There is obviously more to the moral life than obeying a set of rules.
This “more” is what Jesus calls us to with His commandments of love. This is why I have never been impressed with the neo-pagan moral tenant of “do no harm.” It’s not that it is not a good moral code. But it’s not good enough. Jesus calls us to a higher level of virtue than merely doing no harm. Jesus calls us to actively love.
Elsewhere in the gospel (Mt 5:17-30), Jesus speaks more about this love behind the law. He points to the law that says “thou shalt not kill,” and tells us that we should not even be angry with one another. He points to the law that says “thou shalt not commit adultery” and tells us that we should not even lust after another in our heart. These outward acts (murder, adultery, theft, etc) are certainly immoral, but they are only the outward manifestations of what lies within our hearts. Jesus is saying that while it is good not to do these things, it is not good enough. We should not even desire these things. How do we obtain a heart that does not even desire sinful things? By falling in love with God, and by so doing, learning how to truly love our neighbors and ourselves.
St. Augustine said of the moral life, “Love God, then do as you will.” This is perhaps one of his most misunderstood quotes, too often taken out of context. St. Augustine did not mean to say you can do whatever you want, so long as you have generally positive feelings about God. He is no moral relativist. What St. Augustine meant is that if we truly love God, then we will desire only what God desires. We will seek to align our human will with His divine will. If we love God in this way, then we can truly do whatever we want, because the only thing we want will be to do God’s will. We won’t want to sin. I don’t know about you, but I’m not there yet. I still need a great deal of help in learning to love as God loves. It is the work of a lifetime, but a work God promises us the grace to complete if we stay at it.
It helps greatly to know that God loves us. The moral law He reveals to us is not some arbitrary list of rules we must follow to show our obedience to Him as our dictator. Rather, they are instructions God has given us to help us learn how to love as He loves, because on our own, we so often fail. They are instructions meant to help us on our path to holiness, to becoming sharers of the Divine Nature, which is nothing other than pure Love.
When Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment is to love, He is not easing up on God’s law. He’s making it more strict. It’s much easier to follow a list of rules than it is to truly love another person. Love is hard. Love requires sacrifice. And love is worth it. For you and I are made in the image of Love, and only by learning to love rightly do we discover our authentic selves.