FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (C)
Many of you may know the hymn, "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love." The title line for this song is taken from today's gospel reading.
"I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
St. Augustine once said, "Love God; then do as you will." Was St. Augustine saying that it was permitted for Christians to do anything at all, so long as they loved God? Was Jesus saying that all the other commandments and moral precepts that came before Him were abolished in place now of the single command to love? Are the Beatles right in crooning, "All we need is love?"-Jn 13:14-35
The answer is no: at least not in the way that moral relativists would like to believe. Moral relativism is the idea that there is no such thing as a good or evil action. Our actions may be judged good or evil based on the circumstances of the particular situation, or some other outside criteria, such as our intentions. Some actions may be wrong in some situations, but the relativist does not believe that any action is necessarily wrong all the time. The relativist would read the above words of Jesus, or St. Augustine, and see in them permission to do anything whatsoever, so long as one is motivated by love.
Telling a lie then becomes permissible, so long as you are doing it to spare someone's feelings.
Having sex before marriage is perfectly fine, so long as the two of you love each other. But why stop there? Homosexual acts would also be permitted, if done with love. And who says love has to be limited to two people? Why not three or more? There are no limits in the bedroom so long as what you are doing comes from a motivation of love.
The relativists even cite love as a reason for abortion. "I love my unborn child too much to bring her into such a cruel, overpopulated world. I love my unborn child too much to raise him in poverty, without a father."
What about adultery? "I don't love my wife any longer. I love my mistress and want to be with her."
Missing Mass on Sunday? "God knows I love Him. I don't need to go to Mass and prove it to anyone else. I want to spend the time with my friends and family, whom I love. That's what God would really wants me to do."
It becomes possible to justify any sinful action we choose to commit by finding a loving reason for what we do. And that is easier than you think; we human beings are experts at finding good reasons to do bad things. No one, after all, wants to commit an evil action. We all want to do good things. So when we are tempted to sin (as we are all too often) we first justify the action in our own minds, giving ourselves permission to do what our conscience tells us is wrong.
Jesus and St. Augustine, however, are not moral relativists. They teach that there are some actions which simply should never be done because they are wrong, because they are beneath our human dignity and so we do damage to ourselves when we perform them. Jesus did not come to abolish the commandments, but to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17). Rather than tossing the commandments out the window, Jesus in fact calls for a more strict observance of them.
The commandments say not to commit adultery, but Jesus says to even look at another woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart (Mt. 5:27). The commandments say not to kill. Jesus wants more. Jesus says not to be angry, not to insult, not to hate (Mt. 5:22). What Jesus is doing is peeling back the outer surface of the moral law and showing us the purpose behind it. And that purpose is love.
Jesus teaches us to call God our Father. We are all His children. And like any parent, God sets rules in His house. The rules established by a good parent are not arbitrary. They exist for a reason. Parents tell their children not to play in the kitchen around the hot stove, because they do not want their children to be burned. Parents tell children to stay in the yard when they play outside, because they do not want them to get lost, or hit by a car in the street. Parents tell children not to eat cookies before dinner because they want them to be healthy.
Like any good parent, God's rules for us are there for our own good. They are there because He loves us. God made us, so it reasons that He knows what makes us tick. He knows our needs and desires. He knows what is good and helpful to us, and what will harm us. And He steers us away from those things that would lead to our harm (even though, like eating cookies before dinner, they may bring pleasure at the time).
Thou shall not kill. Why? Because killing is an extreme violation of the love one human person ought to have for another. Hatred is also a violation of that love.
Thou shall not commit adultery. Why? Because it is a violation of the love husband and wife ought to have for one another. Lusting after someone else is also a violation of that love.
Each of the commandments can be seen as a commandment of love. The first three deal with our relationship with God. If we love God, we will not be tempted to place other gods before Him, or to take His name in vain. And we will count it a pleasure to give Him worship and adoration on the holy day He set apart for us as a day of rest.
The final seven commandments deal with our relationship with our fellow man. If we truly love our neighbors we will not want to dishonor them, lie to them, steal from them, kill them, etc.
This is why St. Augustine can say, "Love God, then do as you will." Because if we truly love God in our hearts, we will not want to do anything that is against His perfect Divine will. We will only desire to do what is good, and so our loving desire will lead us to obey His commands, not to disregard them.
This is why Jesus tells us "Love one another." Love is the heart of the entire moral law. If we perfectly love one another, the commandments will take care of themselves. Sadly, our love for one another is all too often imperfect. Even the best of human relationships are tarnished by struggles with selfishness, jealousy, resentment, etc. Perfect love eludes us in this world. But we try. We are striving. We want to grow in love and Jesus is there to help us in that effort.
He shows us that the commandments are not there to restrict us, but to help us grow in love. He shows us the ideal love which is self-sacrifice. He invites us to follow Him in that love. This is how the world will know we are His disciples. This is how all things will be made new. And in that new heaven and new earth promised to us, we will know perfect love, and we will finally be able to reflect that love perfectly in our own lives.