Mike was one of my favorite people in the world. He owned the service station where my family had, and still has, our cars repaired and maintained ever since we first moved out to the suburbs, almost forty years ago now. Dad used to joke that with all the cars we brought in there over the years, we probably had ownership in at least the driveway by now. Mike was the kind of guy who, if you brought your car in for a tune-up, would call you and say, “your car doesn’t really need a tune-up yet, so I’ll just change the oil and a couple of the spark plugs and you’ll be fine.” He was honest and did great work, and it seemed like everyone knew him. He taught that to a kid who came to work for him when he was just sixteen. When Mike retired five years or so ago, Ted took over for him and runs the business just the way Mike taught him.
Mike was a regular at the 7am Mass on Sunday, and after his retirement was a pretty regular daily Mass-goer. The church would sometimes ask him to help a person in need with car repairs. This he did gladly; he was always ready to serve. A couple of years ago, when Mike died, I took Mom to his wake. It took us an hour and a half to get in to see him and his family, and it was like that all night long. His funeral packed the parish church, and eight of us priests concelebrated the Mass. Mike left his mark on our community in incredible ways, and nobody ever forgot it. Mike truly understood the kind of love that Jesus calls us to have in today’s Gospel.
Today’s gospel reading speaks to us about what may be the hallmark of Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor. This two-pronged approach to loving is what life is all about for us, it is, in fact, the way we are all called to live the Gospel. The scholar of the law is testing Jesus to see if he can come up with a way to discredit him. But Jesus’ answer is one that the scholar can’t take issue with. He boils all of the law and the prophets down to just two basic commandments: love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and then also love your neighbor as yourself. There were over six hundred major and minor precepts in the Jewish law, and the scholars argued about them all the time. But they can’t really take issue with what Jesus said. In fact, the first of the laws that Jesus quoted, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind and soul…” was once that so many students of the law had memorized from the time they were little children. In fact, many Jews did and do post that particular quote of the law on their doorposts and reverence those words when they enter the home, so this was not new ground for them. What was new was putting the love of neighbor parallel to that law. And when you think about it, this is so common-sense. If we love God and neighbor, there won’t be any room for sin or crime or anything like that. It’s so simple. And yet so hard to do.
But it shouldn’t be that way: it shouldn’t have been hard for the Pharisees and it shouldn’t be hard for us either. The Pharisees made up the strongest part of the religious establishment of the time. They were so concerned about getting the law right, that they often missed the whole point of the law in the first place. Jesus was always taking them to task for that. The law came from none other than God himself, and he gave it for the good of the people, but the Pharisees used it to keep people under their thumb, which was what they were trying to do to Jesus here.
And, to be clear, God is all about justice. So if that’s how he wanted it, the law would indeed be very rigid. But as we see from the small sample of the law we have in our first reading, God wanted justice to be tempered with mercy. Sure, go ahead and take your neighbor’s cloak as collateral on a loan. But you better give it back to him before sundown, because that’s all he has to keep him warm in the night. Justice in the eyes of God, is completely useless without the application of compassion.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to those of us who have learned, as early as we can remember, that God is love. God is love itself, and God cannot not love. That’s what God does and who God is: he loves us into existence, loves us in repentance, loves us with mercy, and loves us to eternity. God is love in the purest of all senses: that love which wills the good of the other as other.
So when Jesus boils the whole Judaic law down to two commandments, it’s not like he’s made it easy. As I said; it is simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. It means giving the person who just cut you off in traffic a break, because you don’t know what’s really going on in their life. It means showing kindness to your family after a long day, even when they’re testing your patience. It means finding ways to be charitable and help those less fortunate. And it means cutting yourself some slack when you mess up, even when you’ve just committed the sin you’ve been trying to stamp out of your life forever. You have to love yourself if you are going to do what Jesus said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s one that people miss all the time.
The whole law and the prophets depends on love. The way we live our lives needs to show that we depend on love too.
So let’s pray with that right now. Closing your eyes for a moment, take some quiet time to think about someone who has wronged you in some way. Or, if it’s closer to your heart, think about a sin or cycle of sin that you’ve been struggling with. (…) Take a moment now to place that person, or yourself, in Jesus’ presence. Give him the offense the person has committed against you, or give him the sin you’ve been struggling with personally. (…) Give him the feelings you have around this right now. (…) Let Jesus tell you how much he loves you right now. (…) Tell Jesus about the love you have for him. (…) Ask for his help to love the other person, or yourself, in the same way that he loves you. (…)
Thank you, Jesus, for loving us. Thank you for giving us the example of your love on the cross. Thank you for laying down your own life out of love for us. Thank you for never not loving me, no matter where I have gone or what I have done. Help me to love as you love. Help me to love you, love others, and love myself in the same way that you love me. I love you, Lord, my strength.