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This Sunday, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A, Jesus teaches unloving people how to love.
Not just the Pharisees, but you and me.
The Gospel shows us another glimpse of the tests Jesus endured in the days before the Passion.
The reading begins: “When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered, and one of them, a scholar of the law, tested him …”
Jewish leaders of different brands are taking turns trying to trip up Jesus. Right before today’s Gospel reading, he defeated the Sadducees who tried to put him in a verbal trap by asking him whose bride a woman will be in heaven after being widowed by seven brothers. He tells them that God is not a legalistic God, he is a personal God, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob; the God not of the dead but of the living.
Now the Pharisees have another turn trying to place him in a verbal trap. Jesus escapes it in the same way he escaped the Sadducees. They are asking him a question as if God were a legal force in the universe. He answers knowing God is a person— a God we love, not a God we satisfy.
The greatest commandment he cites is from the shema of the Jewish people, the formula of the law everyone in his original audience had learned as children and recited daily: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
The second greatest commandment “is like it” Jesus says, and it’s this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
How is the second greatest like the first?
God wants us to love him with everything we have: “With all your heart” means from the depth of our animal nature; “with all your soul,” means with the entirety of our angel-like spiritual dimension, and “with all your might” means with all of our will and determination.
And the second commandment is like that, because it directs us to love those things in the world that are made in his image: our neighbors.
We tend to get this exactly backwards. All sin is idolatry, our attempt put something else in God’s place. We think it’s silly that people once worshiped a golden bull, but that was a symbol of wealth, virility and power for an earlier age. Today we have made our very selves into the new idols of wealth, virility and power we worship. We give our animal heart to the pleasure of the senses, our angel-like souls to furthering our will, and all the might of our determination goes to making and spending money.
We tend to love ourselves above all things, and then things that are in our image. We love the fashion and consumer goods we use to define ourselves; we love our streaming entertainment and social media, personalized to our tastes; we love whatever political party best reflects us. We serve those people who will pay us back; we love those people who delight us or benefit us; and we love God insofar as he supports and affirms that system that has us as its center.
We are the center of a bubble that reflects our own image back.
How do we change?
The Church anticipated that question, and loaded Sunday’s readings with advice.
The Second reading is St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, perhaps the earliest book written in the New Testament, and it is written to people with exactly our problem. The inhabitants of Thessalonica were idol-worshipers in a city of plenty, a port town close by a major trading road.
Paul tells the Thessalonians that he has heard from many about “how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” He himself has seen how the Thessalonian church “received the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit” and “became a model” for other Christians.
You can feel the surprise and excitement that Paul has in meeting early Christians who are loving God in a new way.
What he describes in them is the surprise and excitement people have when they fall in love.
When people fall in love, they dress more sharply, smile more brightly, and easily shrug off minor irritations and setbacks. They change themselves for the sake of the beloved, and they treat everyone better in their good mood.
That’s because human couples love each other with our hearts: in the new things we hold dear and the old things we decide to be detached from. We love each other with our souls: by directing ourselves more resolutely to the other’s will. And we love each other with all our might: enduring whatever is necessary to unite with our beloved.
This is the love Jesus wants us to have for God.
How do we achieve this love? The same way we do with a spouse. We fall in love with one another because we admire each other and spend time together — dates, late-night conversations, and working together on the same projects.
That’s what prayer is for. Talking to God, you’ll learn to admire him and love him. You will love him because you will discover that he is infinite goodness, inexhaustible beauty, unfathomable truth, and the ground of being. You’ll love him because he created every thing you love, and your ability to love it, also. You will love him because he has protected you, tested you, and surrounded you with people who have helped you your whole life long. You will love him with everything in you.
And once you see the reasons you love God, you’ll see the reasons you should love others.
They were made by God, loved by God, and put beside you by God. They were willed into being by a God who loved them so much he died for them. And if you have trouble loving others like you love yourself — or trouble loving yourself, even, as you should — God can help with that, too.
When we love ourselves, we are aware that the person we love is weak and often disappointing. We love ourselves knowing that we deserve love, but also knowing that our love needs to have limits. To love others like we love ourselves, we need to excuse their faults, like we do our own, focus on their strengths, like we do our own, and try to move them constructively forward, like we do with ourselves.
Each Mass tells the story of why you should love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself.
At each Mass, God comes close to you, becoming small to be on your level. You see him in the host, wanting to become one with you — and wanting to be one with your neighbors.
He breaks into the bubble we have built around ourselves and replaces our distorted self image with himself, the perfect image of the Father.