31st Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 6:2–6; Hebrews 7:23–28; Mark 12:28–34
Inseparable Twins You cannot love God, whom you cannot see, if you don’t love your brother, whom you can see
Father George Anderson served as a chaplain at the maximum security prison at Riker’s Island, New York.
He started a prayer-discussion group among some of the prisoners. The group would read a passage from Scripture, like the parable of the good Samaritan or the parable of the prodigal son.
The prisoners would then ponder the passage in silence and end by discussing how it applied to their everyday lives.
One evening a prisoner named Richard, from a section for the mentally disturbed, was with the group for the first time. Father Anderson describes the episode this way:
“It was a windy evening in March. There was little heat in the room. An inmate sitting opposite Richard, having come only in a T-shirt and trousers, was shivering. Richard had come with his shoulders wrapped in two blankets. Then while we were discussing the idea of helping each other, Richard suddenly got up, walked to the other inmate, and put one of his blankets around him.”
Richard’s wordless gesture impressed the group more than any words that were spoken. It also made an important point—the same one Jesus makes in today’s gospel: Love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand. Like two sides of the same coin, they cannot be separated.
In other words, you can’t speak to God lovingly in prayer—as the prisoners were doing in their group—if you don’t treat your neighbor lovingly in action. The Apostle John underscores this point in his First Letter.
He says bluntly: “If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love others whom we have seen. The commandment that Christ has given us is this: whoever loves God must love others also.” 1 John 4:20–21
Spiritual writers tell us that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor is so closely linked to his command to love God that if we ignore our brother we will soon ignore God also.
In fact, we will soon lose contact with God and our own immortal soul.
There’s a popular saying that expresses this point graphically. It says:
“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three.”
The key to loving contact with God and with our own soul is loving contact with our neighbor.
Tragically, our failure to love our neighbor often starts with a failure to love in our own family. When we stop reaching out in love to the members of our own family, we inevitably fail to reach out in love to our neighbor.
And the opposite is just as true.
When we reach out in love to members of our own family, we inevitably reach out in love to our neighbor.
Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable twins. Where you find one, you find the other. And where you don’t find one, you won’t find the other.
Today’s gospel contains one of the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves.
As such, it invites us to ask one of the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves.
How loving are we toward the members of our own family? If the answer is “not very loving,” then we are probably not very loving in our approach to our neighbor either.
And if we aren’t very loving in our approach to our neighbor, we are probably not very loving in our approach to God.
On the other hand if we are loving toward the members of our own family, then we are probably loving to our approach to our neighbor. And if we are loving in our approach to our neighbor, we are probably loving in our approach to God.
Some time ago the Dallas Morning News carried a letter from a young woman. It was prompted by the death of her mother. A part of it reads:
“Mom lived nearby. It would have been easy for me to drop in for a cup of tea and a hug. . . .
“When I called Mom on the phone, our conversation was brief and hurried. I feel ashamed when I think of the times I cut her short with, ‘Sorry I have to run.’ . . .
“The world is filled with daughters like me. I hope many of them will see this . . .and profit from it.”
I’m sure many of us can relate to that young woman’s remarks. We too have treated our parents or our children or people who need our love and affection in a similar way.
Today’s gospel is an invitation for us to take inventory of our lives and ask ourselves if, perhaps, we may be like the young woman who wrote the letter that appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
If we are, then today’s gospel is a challenge from Jesus himself to do something about it. Let’s close by repeating these words from today’s gospel:
“A teacher of the Law . . . came to [Jesus] with a questions: ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’
“Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is this: . . . “Love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . .” The second most important commandment is this: “Love your neighbor as your love yourself.” There is no other commandment more important than these two.’ ”
Series II 31st Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 6:2–6; Hebrews 7:23–28; Mark 12:28–34
God’s Footprints Love of family, neighbor, and God are inseparably interwoven.
Ardis Whitman is an author. You see her articles in magazines like the Reader’s Digest.
In one of those articles she describes a moving episode from her own personal life. Her son had died a few months earlier, and she was having a hard time coping with his death.
One night her college-aged granddaughter and her granddaughter’s boyfriend decided to try to bolster her spirits. So they invited her to go with them to a nightclub. To their delight, Ardis accepted.
Everything went along fine. They were having a delightful time, until the band played an old favorite that reminded Ardis of her son.
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she began to weep silently. At that moment the two young people did an incredibly beautiful thing.
Spontaneously, they both reached out and gathered her hands into their own.
There the three of them sat—their hands locked in love and affection. It was a beautiful healing experience for Ardis. She felt protected in a “circle of safety,’’ in a “place of love.’’
Commenting on the experience, she wrote, “It is not surprising that heaven comes down to touch us when we find ourselves safe in the heart of another person.’’
Then she recalled something that the Indian poet Tagore wrote to a friend who had visited him in time of need. He said, “After you had taken your leave, I found God’s footprints on my floor.’’
That story fits in beautifully with today’s Scripture readings, especially the gospel reading.
It underscores the point that love of God and love of neighbor are closely linked. In fact, they are so closely linked that you can’t separate them. They are two sides of the same coin. Where you find one, you find the other.
Touching on this point, the apostle John writes in his First Letter:
“For we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love others, whom we have seen.” 1 John 4:20
And so love of God and love of neighbor are so closely linked together that when we cease loving one, we also cease loving the other.
But it does not stop here. It goes even further. When we stop loving our neighbor, we lose contact not only with God but even with our own soul.
There’s a popular saying that expresses this truth graphically. It says:
“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three.’’
The point is clear. The key to maintaining contact with God and with our own soul is to maintain loving contact with our neighbor.
The story of Ardis Whitman and the two young people recalls something else about love.
Tragically, our failure to love God and neighbor often starts with our failure to love our own family. When we stop loving our own family, we stop loving God and our neighbor.
This invites us to ask ourselves an important question.
How loving are we toward the members of our own family? If the answer is “Very loving,’’ then all is well.
On the other hand, if the answer is “Not very loving,’’ then all is not well. For we are probably not very loving toward God and our neighbor either.
As John says, “Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.’’
The key to loving God and neighbor is to love the members of our own family.
Some time ago a woman in Arizona wrote a letter to Ann Landers.
She said that she hoped that her letter would help members of other families to love one another.
She told how she and her brother had treated each other coldly, even bitterly, for years.
It took the death of their father to make them stop fighting and to begin loving one another. That reconciliation changed their lives.
Not too many years after they reconciled, her brother died in her arms. The woman concluded her letter, saying:
“I am grateful for the years we had together, but I could scream when I think of all the years we missed because we were too bullheaded and shortsighted to try to get along.’’
I’m sure many of us can relate to that woman’s remarks. We too are sometimes too bullheaded and shortsighted to try to get along with people, especially members of our own family.
By way of contrast, what a beautiful world it would be if we could imitate the example of Ardis Whitman’s granddaughter and her granddaughter’s boyfriend.
What a beautiful world it would be if someone could say of us what the Indian poet Tagore said of his friend: “After you had taken your leave, I found God’s footprints on my floor.’’
Let’s close with a thought that is inscribed at the eastern entrance of Rockefeller Center in New York City. It reads:
“Man’s ultimate destiny depends not on whether he can learn new lessons or make new discoveries or conquests, but on his acceptance of the lesson taught him close upon two thousand years ago.’’
And what is that lesson? It is this:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. . . . [And] love your neighbor as you love yourself. Mark 12:30–31
Series III 31st Sunday of the Year Deuteronomy 6:2–6, Hebrews 7:23–28, Mark 12:28–34
Love Three levels: essence, logic, and folly of love.
Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your strength.” Mark 12:30
Years ago, a little boy named Chris lived alone with his mother in the fourthfloor apartment of a tenement house.
Each apartment in the tenement house was heated by a single coal stove—usually located in the kitchen because it was also used for cooking.
The main coal supply for the stoves was in the basement. That meant coal for the apartment that Chris lived in had to be carried up four flights of stairs.
Chris’s mother was not well, so he had to carry all the coal himself. In the winter, that meant he had to make several trips a day.
At school one day, Chris’s teacher asked the class what Jesus meant when he said we should love God with all our strength. Chris volunteered by answering, “It means to love God the way I love my mother.”
The teacher asked Chris what he meant by that. Chris said:
“Well, my mother and I live alone in a small apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement house.
“There is no elevator and my mother can’t carry heavy things. So I have to carry the coal in a bucket from the basement to the fourth floor. That takes all my strength.”
Chris’s example is a good illustration of what Jesus means when he says we should love God with all our strength. It puts the focus of love right where it should be.
The reason is that the love for God in our hearts, our minds, and our souls must eventually be translated into action. And that’s where “loving God with all our strength” comes into play.
In Chris’s case it took “all” the strength he had to translate his love for his mother into action.
This brings us to something we tend to forget. It is this: There are three levels or degrees of loving God and loving our neighbor. The three levels are often referred to as:
1. the “essence” of love, 2. the “logic” of love, and 3. the “folly”of love.
To illustrate the first level—the essence of love—take the love of a husband and wife. At this level, they stay faithful in their love and do nothing to hurt the other.
In the movie Fiddler on the Roof there’s a delightful dialogue that illustrates this first level of love. It goes something like this:
Tevye asks his wife, Golde, “Do you love me?” Golde replies, “I’m your wife!” Tevye says, “I know that! But do you love me?”
Golde replies, “For 25 years, I’ve cleaned your house, cooked your meals, and washed your clothes.”
Again, Tevye says, “I know that! But do you love me?”
Again Golde replies, “For 25 years, I’ve worked with you,
laughed with you, and cried with you. If that’s not love, what is?”
Golde’s point is that for 25 years she has been faithful to Tevye—both in good times and bad times.
And that’s the essence of love: remaining faithful to the beloved.
That brings us to the second level—the logic of love.
At this level, the lover is not content with just remaining faithful to the other. The lover wants to do more. The lover wants to do things that will surprise and delight the beloved.
The third level is called the folly of love. At this level, the lover does what ordinary people consider to be foolish or mad. The show-stopping song “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical South Pacific refers to this level of love when it says:
Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons. Wise men never try.
A beautiful example of this level is the love of Jesus for each of us. Saint Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians:
[Although Jesus] had the nature of God . . . he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant . . . and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—his death on the cross. Philippians 2:6–8
To people who do not love with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind, and with all their strength, the love of Jesus for us seems like madness. It is utter folly.
In brief, then, there are three levels of love. The first level is the essence of love. It consists in staying faithful to the other and doing nothing to hurt them.
The second level is the logic of love. It wants to do more than stay faithful. It wants to surprise and delight the other.
Finally, the third level is the folly of love. It is this kind of love that Jesus had for us and invites us to strive to have for one another.
Speaking of this level of love, Jesus said, “The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them.” John 15:13
Most of us, in our love relationships with God and one another, love at the first level most of the time. We remain faithful to the beloved and do nothing to hurt them.
So, too, most of us experience moments in our love relationship when our love rises to the second level. We go out of our way to do things that will surprise and delight the other.
And, finally, many of us have enjoyed grace-filled occasions when our love reaches the third level.
Like little Chris, we have loved with all our minds, with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength.
Today’s Gospel invites us to strive more and more—with the help of God’s grace—to reach this level of love.
It is this kind of love that is capable of transforming not only those we love, but also ourselves, and, eventually, the world we live in.