All Saints Day - Year A - Matthew 5:1-12
Do you love me?
There is a very tender and moving scene in the play, Fiddler On The Roof. Tevye and his wife Golda are being forced to move from their home in Russia. One day Tevye comes into the house and asks his wife, "Golda, do you love me?" "Do I what?" "Do you love me?" Golda looks at him and then responds. "Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you're upset, you're worn out, go inside, go lie down, maybe it's indigestion." Tevye interrupts and asks the question, "Golda, do you love me?" Golda sighs as she looked at him and says, "Do I love you? For 25 years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cows. After 25 years, why talk of love right now?" Tevye answers by saying, "Golda, the first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared, I was shy, I was nervous." "So was I," said Golda. "But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other, and now I'm asking, "Golda, do you love me?" "Do I love him?" Golda sighs. "For 25 years I've lived with him, fought with him, 25 years my bed is his! If that's not love, what is?" "Then you love me?" Tevye asks. "I suppose I do!" she says. "And I suppose I love you too!" he says. "It doesn't change a thing, but after 25 years it's nice to know." "Do you love me?".
In today’s Gospel, Jesus leaves us his classic formulation of love, a teaching so simple that a child could grasp it, and yet so challenging that not even the saints quite live it. Christ clearly distinguishes between love of God and love of neighbor, calling love of God the first and greatest commandment and love of neighbor the second. But even though he distinguishes them in this way, Jesus does not separate them. He instead insists that the second is like the first, and uses the same Greek word for both God-love and neighbor-love.
First God then Neighbor
By ranking and relating God-love and neighbor-love in this way, Jesus establishes an order of loves—a hierarchy of first things and second things. There’s a certain rule that applies to everything arranged in this way, a rule that we’ll call the rule of “second things.” The rule goes like this. whenever we prefer the lower to the higher, the part to the whole, and—in general—“second things” to “first things”, we lose not only the first thing (which one would expect), but we lose the second thing as well.
Illustrations of this rule are everywhere. When we put our job before our families, for instance, not only do we hurt our relationship with our family, but we also quickly lose the true pleasure of working. Work uncoupled from community tends to become compulsive rather than rewarding. The same pattern holds for whole societies. The history of the 20th Century has shown that whenever countries violently suppress religion for the sake of human freedom (as they did in the heyday of atheist communism) the result was not only a forgetfulness of God, but a loss of human freedom as well. Whenever we put humanity before divinity, we get neither right.
Though this rule of “second things” holds quite generally, it applies in a special way to Christian marriage. For it is in this particular form of neighbor-love—the love between husbands and wives—that the second commandment is most “like” the first. “Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love,” writes Pope Benedict, “becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (DCE 11). Because marriage is called to bear a special “likeness” to God’s love, our natural human love requires a special form of assistance to meet this standard. We need God to lend His own strength to our love, the seed of which strength he plants in every sacramental marriage.
Because of the special demands of marriage, putting first things takes on special urgency here. When husband and wife do not love each other for God’s sake, even their love for each ends up stunted. Why? We are made with an infinite longing, a yearning to love perfectly and to be loved perfectly. But there is no Mr. or Mrs. Perfect. No single person—no matter how compatible according to eHarmony—can bear the weight of our infinite expectations. After a smooth beginning, marriages almost always pass through a time of trial, even a phase of disillusionment—a time when the other’s faults and limitations become infuriating and when we realize, moreover, that he or she is unlikely to change. It’s then that the proverbial “seven-year itch” arises. And it’s then that our love is either matures into something deeper, or it dies.
It’s also then that we need to call upon the reserves of a love deeper than our natural affection. And our ability to tap into this reservoir depends on the degree to which we have cultivated friendship with God. Entering into friendship—any friendship—increases our ability to see things from that friend’s perspective, to appreciate the things he/she appreciates and to reject the things that he/she rejects. God’s friendship is like this too. By entering into friendship with Christ, then I “learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend”.
Prayer and the sacraments give us, little by little, the ability to look at our husband or wife (or any neighbor) through Christ’s eyes. We strengthen this vision when we meditate on Christ in the Gospels, when we receive him worthily in the Eucharist, and when we accept his forgiveness in confession. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Luther pastor killed for resistance to the Nazi party, used to exhort the couple in his wedding homilies, “Live in the forgiveness of one another’s sins.” So essential. But nearly impossible if we have not contemplated Christ’s indulgence toward our own sins.
As Christ sees it, friendship with God is that first thing on which our love of neighbor depends. Hence, taking a moderate time apart to cultivate our friendship with God is not taking “quality time” away from our spouses and our children and our neighbors. It ensures instead that the time we spend with them is “quality;” for prayer changes the quality of our love, salting our love with divine fire. Do I want to be a better husband, wife, father, mother, and neighbor? I must put first things first. I must love God more ardently–with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Remember that the persecution of Jesus and his followers was championed by well-meaning religious people motivated by what they believed to be zeal and love for God. The same people asking about the first commandment are the ones trying to entrap and kill Jesus. They are so conscious about love of God. Why then are they so insensitive when it comes to love of neighbour? Saul who later became St Paul is a good example of this kind of skewed religiosity. Jesus prophesied that "an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God" (Jn 16.2).
The error of the Pharisees is still here with us. There are still many Christians who try to separate love of fellow human beings from love of God. Their commitment to faith does not include commitment to human rights and to justice and peace issues. We shall do well to heed the message of Jesus in today's gospel: that true love of God and true love of neighbour are two sides of the same coin. Any attempt to separate them is a falsification of the message of Christ. "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 Jn 4.20).
Fr. Rudolf V. D’Souza OCD
Vancouver - Canada