Do you want to live an exciting, purposeful and joyful life?
Keep the new commandment that Jesus gave us. It is as simple as that.
The readings today show us how this is done. The psalmist starts it all off by proclaiming that they who follow God’s law, who do God’s will, who obey God’s Word with care and from the heart, will be happy.
St. Paul in the second reading entices us to enter more deeply into what he calls the mystery of a wisdom of God hidden through the ages, and that we will experience a joy beyond our imagining if we love God. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, explains that this secret wisdom is not like gnosticism, which posits that only a select group is in the circle of understanding. The secret, he explains, is the secret of the cross — that in dying for us, Jesus not only reveals God to us as totally vulnerable, humble and unconditional love, but also invites us to follow his example, to be his disciples, to love as he loved. Those who grasp this message are within the kingdom; those who do not cannot yet enter that reign of God that he came on earth to inaugurate.
Jesus in the gospel makes it clear that he did not come to change the law, but to fulfil it through his love. He then gives us the key to keeping the law — our virtue must go deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees. To understand that comment, we need to review what the law entails.
We know that the Chosen People, through Moses, were given the Ten Commandments. The religious leaders then developed these Ten Commandments over the ages (from before the Common Era to the 5th century CE) into the Talmud, a collection of opinions and teachings of thousands of rabbis that became the basis for all codes of Jewish law widely quoted to this day. The people were obligated to keep all these laws if they were to consider themselves holy. Unfortunately, that plethora of laws led to a numbing and lifeless externalism that led the people down a path that could actually take them away from who God truly was love and only love.
The newness of Jesus’ law lies in taking an obscure law from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” and putting it on an equal level with the great Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Love God with your whole being,” that was the main focus of the Jewish effort to keep the law.
Then Jesus raised the bar even higher by asking us to “Love one another as he has loved us.” Finally, Jesus added the finishing touch that we are also to “Love our enemies, and do good to those who persecute us.” That pretty well summarizes the newness of the law of love that Jesus taught us. It is more about love than about what one has to do to be a good Jew, a main concern of many present-day Jews according to an Israeli guide to one group of pilgrims.
This is the gist of the comment by Jesus, that unless our virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees and their focus on trying to keep all the laws, more so than loving others from the heart, then we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
If this all sounds difficult, challenging and even undoable, the first reading from Ecclesiasticus both reassures us (“It is within our power to keep the commandments”), and reminds us of the importance of living this new law (choose life or death, fire or water). This is a matter of life and death.
In the end, it is simple. We are to love God with our whole being; to love our neighbour as we love ourselves; to love one another as Jesus has loved us, and to love and forgive our enemies, those who hurt us.
This is the choice that Jesus would have us make, and invites us to make. The late psychologist Gerald May, in his book Will and Spirit, teaches that one of the greatest gifts God has given us, after life itself, is our free will. We can be willing, he points out, or wilful. That would be his way of saying, choose life or death, fire or water.
To be willing is to be humble and open to doing the will of God in our lives rather than our own will (that would mean choosing to make loving others from the heart our greatest priority in our lives). To be wilful is to be proud and stubborn and choosing to do our own will rather than God’s will (which for many might be to make following laws to make themselves look and feel holy their priority rather than loving from the heart).
Richard Rohr, OFM, points out this difference in his own unique way in his claim that Jesus rarely asked us to worship him; instead, he often invited us to follow him. There is a great difference here. Worship is relatively easy and usually risk free. Following Jesus is demanding and can get us into trouble. As the late peace activist Daniel Berrigan put it, “Before we decide to follow Jesus, we better consider how good we look on wood!”
Step 11 of the 12 Step program puts it well: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God, seeking only the knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry it out.”
The eucharist is a humble living out of this new law of Jesus. We listen to his Word, experience his forgiveness, receive his Body and Blood, experience healing, and are empowered to go out to share his love with the world.
So in the end, if we want to live a joyful, purposeful life, all we have to do is to keep the new commandment of Jesus, and love from the heart.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.