With All Your Heart

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Ex 22:20-26; Ps 18:2-4,47,51; 1 Thes 1:5c-10; Mt 22:34-40

Today's readings speak of the love of God, a theme that is so common in Scripture that it is easy to take it for granted. To appreciate how remarkable it is to speak of the love of God, it may be helpful to compare Christian and non-Christian religious practices. Many religions have no notion of loving God, and none of them have the idea of loving God in the Christian sense, a sense prefigured in Judaism. In most religions, one's relationship with what is called a ‘god’ is that of a transaction in which human beings offer allegiance or sacrifice in order to gain some benefit. What is sought, principally, in the pagan religions are benefits, not a personal relationship with God. Indeed, in the pagan Roman Empire or the dark forests of pre-Christian Europe, or the jungles of ancient central America, the worship given to the deity or deities was principally a means of gaining power. One did not seek to love God for God's sake, but for the advantages gained from divine worship. Furthermore, these deities or idols were rarely especially lovable, but instead cold, capricious and often explicitly monstrous. In one of its most degenerate forms, that of magic or sorcery, what is worshipped explicitly is power alone, the yearned for ability to manipulate the natural world, including its people, through mystical or paranormal means. In the Harry Potter books and movies, for example, which might seem fairly innocent to our eyes, it is true that the better characters seek power to do good, but they never seek to know and love God. The characters in Harry Potter celebrate Christmas but never mention Christ.

Even in some monotheistic religions which reject idolatry, God is still not always a God of love. All the variants of the ninety-nine names of the god of Islam refer to god as all-powerful and merciful, but none of them include the words, “God is love”. It is true that there is one famous verse about the love of god in the Qur'an, Sura 3:31, where Muhammad says, “Allah will love you,” but in context this is also a kind of transaction, “If you love Allah, then follow me, Allah will love you.” To make the meaning doubly clear, Muhammad adds in the following verse that “Allah does not love the unbelievers.” Once again, therefore, Islam is a transactional religion in which a willingness to obey the deity, that is “If you love Allah,” holds out the promise of benefits, “Allah will love you.” There is no suggestion in Islam that God loved us while we were yet sinners, or that he could or would ever suffer for his people, or that we should love even our enemies. Muslim scholars regard such ideas as insane (see, for example, [1]).

Against this background, what is so unique about Christianity, also prefigured in Judaism, can perhaps be seen more clearly. St John proclaims that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). God, in other words, loved us first, while we were yet sinners. Notice also the characteristics of the love that God has for us. In today's First Reading, God does not think of the evil done to strangers, to widows and orphans merely as contravening some rational system of justice. God's justice is personal, arising from God's love, so that harm done to other persons is like harm done to God Himself, “If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” God is not, therefore, cold, distant and uninvolved. God is like a ‘consuming fire' (Heb 12:29). Indeed, the great Christian symbol of the love of God is that of the Sacred Heart, the heart of Jesus Christ exposed, encircled with thorns and aflame with divine love.

What response, then, does God desire in answer to His love? Well it is true that God's love is not conditional upon our love for Him. But precisely because God loves us, God wants us to learn to love as He loves. More specifically, He wants us to love with Him in the manner in which He loves, in other words, unconditionally. This is why Jesus says in today's Gospel that, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The most significant word in this commandment is the word ‘all’. The word ‘all’ excludes the idea of conditions, of a transaction in which we give part of what we have only in order to receive some benefit. The Christian vocation is not to love God in order to receive a benefit, which would be to treat God merely as a means to an end. The Christian calling to surrender everything to God out of love, and to love other persons - including, incidentally, ourselves - as God loves us.

Is this kind of love possible for us? No, of course not. By unaided human power it is utterly impossible to love as God loves. But Jesus says that nothing is impossible to God, and the very existence of saints shows that by grace, God can work this remarkable transfiguration of a human soul. May God, in his great mercy, remove the obstacles in our lives that still hold us back from a complete surrender to love.

Father Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 26th October 2008

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