St. Augustine of Hippo, that venerable doctor of the Church, has famously said, "Love God, then do as you will." This, indeed, is the key to the moral life. But there is a right way and a wrong way to interpret that phrase.
The way that many moral relativists today would interpret it -- the wrong way to interpret it -- would be to claim that it does not matter what you do or how you behave. So long as you love God, that is all that matters. You could be the biggest scoundrel on the planet, but if you love God, you will be alright, guaranteed a place in heaven. Or perhaps not the biggest scoundrel... perhaps just not behaving as you should be. Drinking a little too much. Saying a few too many "white lies." Not being honest with your friends, or yourself. Engaging in sexual activity that you know the Church would not approve of, because in your case it is different. In your case it is alright. Because you are in love...
It is easy -- way too easy -- for us human beings to rationalize and justify all of our pet sins. And we usually do so by telling ourselves, "I love God, so it's ok."
But is that all there is to it?
Today's Scripture lessons help us to see what St. Augustine really had in mind when he penned that phrase. In the first reading, from Deuteronomy, Moses is preparing the Israelites to hear "the statutes and decrees" which have been given to him by the Lord. That is to say, the Decalogue, or what we call today the Ten Commandments. He tells them, very pointedly, not to add to what he commands nor subtract from it, and to observe them carefully.
It is not necessary for me to repeat the Ten Commandments here. (You do know them, right? Right?). But they contain such harsh and burdensome commands as "do not kill," and "do not commit adultery," and "do not steal." And oh yes, "honor your father and mother," (that one can sometimes be a challenge for youth coming into adulthood).
Now let's jump to the Gospel reading from Mark chapter 7. Jesus and his disciples are seen by the Pharisees eating a meal with unwashed hands. Now this was not a mere offense against hygiene, but against an established custom of the elders. One must purify one's hands before eating, just as one purified one's kettle, cup and jug. These traditions were paramount to the Pharisees, and the mere fact that Jesus and his followers were not paying them due honor was a horrible offense.
Jesus' response to their criticism is the heart of today's teaching. "Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile." This is a teaching worth meditating on.
Think of the things which come from within our hearts which defile us. Jesus lists many, including unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, envy, arrogance, folly, etc. These are all sins which originate from within our person, as all sins do. A wise person once told me that, as Catholics, we do not live in fear of "accidentally" sinning. It is not as if we can be walking around outside and step in puddle of sin by mistake. Sin is something we choose to do, it involves our heart and our will. And Christ is teaching us that this is what defiles.
Christ cares about more than our actions. He wants our heart. In another Gospel passage he tells a questioner that yes, it is a sin to commit murder, but if you hold hatred for your brother in your heart, you have already committed murder. Likewise adultery is a sin, but if you look at another woman with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery. What matters most is in your heart.
Does this mean our actions do not matter? Of course not. For our actions are the outward expression of what is in our heart. This is what James' letter is getting at in today's second reading. "Be doers of the word and not hearers only." He calls "true religion" that which cares for widows and orphans. Elsewhere in his letter he says that faith without works is dead. Jesus points out that what is most important is what is in our hearts, but James reminds us that our actions are important, as well. This is not a contradiction, for what we do on the outside ought to reflect who we are on the inside. What Jesus warns against are those whose outward lives may seem pious, but whose inward disposition is selfish and impure.
So how do we interpret St. Augustine's moral teaching in light of this lesson? "Love God, then do as you will." Like Christ himself, St. Augustine is pointing out the primacy of our hearts. What is most important is not what we do but who we love. In all of our decisions, in all of our actions, in anything requiring a moral choice on our parts, we begin with this solid principle -- love God. That must always be our starting point. Love of God means many things; it means we must also love our neighbor, and we must love ourselves; we are all God's creation. It means we would not want to do anything to offend God, to go against His will for us. Loving God means we want to be worthy lovers of God. We want Him to be pleased with us. We want to be close to Him. It means all of these things and much more.
And if we begin with the love of God as our first moral principle, then we can "do as we will," because when we truly love God, we only will to do what God wills for our lives. We would not desire to do anything that would erect a barrier between us and God, which is exactly what sin does.
Love God. Then put that love into action. Allow your outward life to reflect that love that is within your heart.
God bless and have a great week!