Love of God and Neighbour
(Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40)
Introduction to Mass
The gospel passage this Sunday contains the essence of the Christian way: love of God and love of neighbour. Every believer has to have a close relationship with God as the foundation for his or her practical life as a Christian. At the same time the Old Testament reading gives a few concrete examples of how the "love of neighbour" is supposed to be put into practice, not only in our personal relationships but in the relationships that make up society as a whole.
Let’s begin Mass by thinking of the ways we've failed to live up to these two commitments and ask God for his forgiveness and healing.
The short declaration that Jesus gives in response to further questioning by the Pharisees has always been seen, quite rightly, not only as summing up the essence of the Law of Moses but also as the essence of Christ’s own message and the heart of the Christian vocation - even the human vocation.
In the view of the Bible we are all creatures made in the image of God and as such we're all called to be people whose character and attitudes and manner of treating others is centred on these two commitments: wholeheartedly loving God and practicing the same love towards our neighbour that we would like to be shown ourselves. Jesus' own life was directed completely by these two principles, or motivations.
When we look at the first part of Christ's reply here, when he says that we have to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, it's obvious that he's talking about a relationship that doesn't just engage us on a superficial level. What Christ is talking about is a relationship that involves the whole person - every aspect of our character - our intellect, our emotions, our will.
And as we know, that isn't something that comes to us easily. On the one hand, God himself often seems distant. God isn't immediately accessible to us in the way that other people are, and for most of us it's a struggle, on many levels, to keep a sense that God is real and present and active, let alone cultivating this attitude of love and dedication and commitment to him.
Partly that's just to do with the difference between God being our Creator and us being creatures, but it's also partly to do with our human weakness and sinfulness.
We're "fallen", in the language of the Bible, and one of the effects of this being fallen is that whereas we find it easy to get caught up in all sorts of diversions and distractions that take up our time and energy and so on, our relationship with God can often seem to go against the grain of our natural inclinations. It seems to make demands on us that are tiresome and boring. It seems to involve a struggle, and we feel we want to resist it.
In these circumstances I think there are two things that we have to remember. One is that however much emphasis we want to put on the idea that God, on his part, wants us to know him and live in close contact with him, still he never forces himself on us. God waits patiently at the door and knocks. He waits to see if we answer him. He doesn't force himself into our lives.
So that for us to draw close to God there always needs to be a bit of effort and a bit of discipline on our part in breaking down that resistance we feel towards him.
One of the things we need to do, for example, is we need to try to pray regularly - "raising our minds and hearts to God" as the definition in the old catechism used to put it.
We need to take a bit of time to reflect on our day-to-day experiences to see how God might have been trying to communicate himself to us in the ordinary events of our life. God will always make himself known to us if we're sensitive to his presence.
And we need to spend a bit of our time in what you might call searching the sources of our knowledge of God - mainly the Bible, of course - so as to build up a more accurate picture of what God is like. That's what the Bible is for: it discloses to us what God is like.
Those are the kind of steps that we have to take (quite straightforward in themselves) if we want to actually carry out this first part of Jesus' commandment about loving God. It's not about cultivating an emotional attachment similar to the close human relationships that we enjoy. Mainly it's about persevering in the ways I just mentioned.
When we do those things we start to move gradually towards knowing God a lot better, we start to become like God, and we grow in our sense of devotion towards him. We become more conscious of our need for him, our "hunger and thirst" for him, as the Bible often describes it. It's not as difficult or as mysterious as it might sound to begin with.
The second part of Jesus' statement is concerned with the way that believers in God should behave towards each other - showing our neighbour the regard and the care and concern that we would like to be shown ourselves. These attitudes take shape as a result of our relationship with God.
It would be a misreading of the Bible's message if we thought that this principle is something that's only meant to affect our own personal relationships - the close ties we have with our family and friends and so on.
If we look at the first reading today we can see that the God who wants us live in a close friendship with him is also the God who gives his followers certain rules for organising the community at large.
Outsiders are to be treated with hospitality - not turned away. “Widows and orphans” are to be looked after, not left to fend for themselves. The poor man is to be treated leniently and generously, not left to carry his burden by himself.
Here the authors of the Book of Exodus are giving examples of a general principle. And the principle is that the ethos of the whole community should be based on God's love and generosity just as much as our private relationships.
So that whenever people are treated as objects, or exploited or manipulated - and maybe even more to the point, whenever the structures in society make it easier for people to be exploited or manipulated - that's just as much of a failure to live up to this second part of Jesus' commandment as any display of individual selfishness.
The fact that so many Christians tend to think of love as belonging to a narrow, personal area of life - while issues of politics and economics belong to another, totally separate area - only shows how far we've privatised our idea of love, and how far we've moved away from what the Bible means when it talks about it.
So just to wind up: these commandments of Christ's are a challenge to us, like so many of Jesus' statements. If we're open to God's grace, it changes us.
Contact with God makes us more loving people, more generous, less self-centred as individuals, - but it also urges us to create an environment in the larger community where generosity and kindness and love for others can flourish - where the principle of love governs all our relationships and not just the ones with the people that we're closest to.
That's the message I would take away from these scripture passages that we've listened to during this Sunday's mass.