Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Love is the Law

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Those of you who had lived through the heydays of the Beatles in the 1970s, may or may not remember another American band called the Suburbs. The popularity of the Suburbs certainly came nowhere close to their legendary counterparts from across the Atlantic, but still had a considerable influence in the late 1970s through the 1980s. The Suburbs’ best-known song is easily “Love is the Law,” a single that was also the title track of their 1983 album. Though the popularity of “Love is the Law” endured long after the band’s activities died down, it wasn’t until last year that frontman and writer of that song, Chan Poling, revealed the inspiration behind the song. Those who had wished for a scriptural reference or inspiration would certainly be disappointed by this revelation. It was just a graffiti spray painted into an overpass during a time of sexual experimentation and liberation. It is no wonder that “Love is the Law” was used as the anthem for the same-sex marriage bill being signed into law into America last year, the song has more meaning now than ever.

Love is such a big word.  It covers a gamut of definitions and means something different to most everyone. But Christ brought an entirely new and radical meaning to the word. In him, we come to understand that love is more than an emotion, a choice, a commitment or an attitude. Love is a person. His name is Jesus Christ. If we want to know what love means, therefore, we must look at Jesus Christ. Love is not just sweet platitudes. Love is a person, not just any person, but God, who forsook his divinity in order to take on our humanity. Yes, love is a person who has laid down his life for us, and by doing so, demonstrates to us the true depths and most profound meaning of that love. This is how Paul describes Christ’s love. “For at the very time when we were still powerless, then Christ died for the wicked. Even for a just man one of us would hardly die, though perhaps for a good man one might actually brave death; but Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that is God’s own proof of his love towards us” (Rom. 5:6-8).

If you still remember, Jesus had survived last week’s trap set by the Jewish leaders concerning the legitimacy of paying taxes to the Roman Emperor. One of the scribes, having heard Jesus' responses, decides to offer a question of his own. Recognising the quality of Jesus' knowledge, he asks a question about a foremost matter, a major topic of rabbinical debates. “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Now this may seem like a silly kindie’ level question to many of us, but for the Jews of Jesus’ time, it was a real challenge to discern which of the supposed 613 (some would say 615, and still others would put the number in the thousands) laws or commandments was indeed the most important one. Any sense of direction had fallen victim to the maze of countless commandments and numerous enumerations. Now, Jesus restores the priorities in no uncertain terms.

Love of God before anything else, as the response of the entire person to God’s total self-giving covenant: love him with your mind, yes, but on a deeper level, with your heart, and incorporating both, with all your soul. In other words, it is loving God with our entire being. Nothing is to be held back. Love doesn’t allow for a compartmentalisation that reserves certain sections of our lives. Neither is this love compromised even in the face of the love we have to offer someone, for example, a wife’s love for her husband or a husband’s love for his wife, or their love for their children and vice versa. The love of neighbour can never take precedence over love of God. In all instances, love of God must come first in its totality.

If we have given everything to God, then how can we make sense of the second part of the Great Commandment, to love our neighbour as ourselves? Here, Jesus, who is both God and man, joins the love of God and the love of neighbour inseparably for eternity. Loving those around us is not competition for our undivided love of God. Rather loving our neighbour is evidence of our love for God. And no exceptional standard of ethics and morality can be valid without love of our neighbour.

But Jesus does not stop there. In what is probably the most striking part of his answer to the question, he makes all the other laws and the prophets’ explications of them dependent on this double commandment as the norm and standard for all morality. It is first and greatest in that it represents the heart-beat of all the commandments. Love moves the Christian beyond the letter of the law by doing “more”, and never “less.” Jesus here erects the fundamental structure for all Christian ethics. It’s not about being good, or neighbourly, or just being nice, it’s always about love. Love indeed is the Law. Some people make the mistake of pitting love against law, as if the two were mutually exclusive. You either have a religion of love or a religion of law. But such an equation is profoundly untenable as it finds no basis in Sacred Scripture. For starters, “love” is a command of the law. Conversely, if you tell them law doesn’t matter, then neither does love, which is the summary of the law. Furthermore, for Jesus there is no love for him apart from keeping the law. But he says even more than this. Jesus connects communion with God with keeping commandments. This is because God’s law is an expression of his loving grace.

Unlike what the song “Love is the Law” suggests, love does not mean licentiousness, a celebration of anarchy, or a carefree plunging into sinful behaviour. Some people today understand “love” as merely a happy feeling of friendliness or good will.  They think that, provided they feel good about the idea of God, they may do as they please. Jesus’ teaching on the Great Commandment and his own demonstration by his sacrifice on the cross demolishes the myth. As anyone who serves others out of love knows, we can only love when we are prepared to undergo a death to the self, to the flesh. Those who indulge their own flesh are not the ones who tend to serve others. Thus, our freedom in Christ is not merely a freedom from the enslavement to the world, and certainly not freedom from the enslavement of the Law, but a call to a new type of service, the responsibility to serve others out of love. It is the opportunity to love God with our entire being, heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbour without hindrance, the possibility of creating human communities based on mutual self-giving rather than the quest for power and status. Licentiousness, on the other hand, perverts God’s grace by insisting that we can live without conscience or moral convictions.

Through this two-fold Great Commandment, Jesus provides us with wise directions to navigate between two dangerous pitfalls. On the one side, Jesus directs us beyond legalism, which always tries to settle for the minimal requirements of the law, by reminding us that true communion with God demands not just a portion of our attention and love, but everything. On the other side, he leads us beyond an irresponsible idea of freedom, a licentious permissiveness, by indicating that there is no contradiction between the Law of Christ and Love. If we say that we truly love God, then we must obey Him in every way and not just be contented with having good feelings or wishes.  And finally, loving God empowers us and frees us to love other people, without the usual strings attached. The demand of love reminds us that we should never settle for a minimum concern for neighbours, but instead go the extra mile, to give without expecting anything in return and finally even to emulate the example of Our Lord, to lay down of our lives for the other, for which there is no greater love.

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