We tend to be bottom line people. We want to cut through all the rules and regulations, the explanations and rhetoric and get to the point. What’s it going to cost? What does it really take – to lose weight, to be successful, to get to heaven? The scribe asked Jesus which of all the commandments, laws and interpretations of them is the most important. What’s the bottom line?
The response of Jesus to the question which is the greatest commandment is both simple and hard. He quotes from the Old Testament: ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the second, that you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ These are familiar words we have heard over and over again, but in practice they are anything but simple. Note he says, all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. That means totally, not the minimum, what can I get away with and still survive. There are no short cuts to fully loving God. It means commitment, surrender, living in the awe of God, aware of our need for his mercy.
Loving neighbor as ourselves is especially difficult. There are people who we have a hard time liking. It is true in families, at work, in everyday life. Some people annoy us with their mannerism, their talkativeness, their style. We priests can be annoying. In anticipation of the collection to come a little boy leaned over to his mother and said, ‘Mom if we pay him now will he stop talking?’
Saint Mother Teresa once said that the test of how well we love is how well we love the ones we love the least. Sometimes the ones we love the least are those who are different from us in racial or ethnic background, in language or religion, in education or occupation.
When we were baptized, usually as infants, the commitment was made on our behalf to live these commandments and a candle was lighted with the words spoken: ‘receive the light of Christ.’ We were charged to be lights of Christ in the world. When we were confirmed, we profess the faith for ourselves and therefore publicly accept the high standard to which we are called as intentional disciples of Christ. Our Lord through his Church offers us the sacraments and through them the grace to live up to that high standard; the sacrament of confirmation being one of the most powerful because with the gift of the Holy Spirit deepened from our baptisms come the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit which you know I am sure: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord or awe and wonder in God’s presence.
The hope is that being sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit the fruits of the Holy Spirit will blossom in us. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, they are “perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory.” They include love or charity, which is a self-giving love that gives without expecting return, the standard being Christ on the cross. Joy, which is not worldly happiness but that which comes with an awareness of God’s favor and grace. Peace and patience, which is not the absence of conflict or disagreement but rather resting in our relationship with God even in tough times confident in God’s promise. Kindness, goodness, generosity and gentleness, which is how we are to respond to others in need of love and forgiveness, physical and spiritual. Faithfulness, which is being true to commitments made, especially in vocational decisions such as marriage between a man and a woman for the good of one another and open to the gift of new life. And finally modesty, self-control and chastity, which means understanding the importance of and maintaining control over our behaviors. I encourage you every once in a while to look at this list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, see what direction in which your lives are going, and then take it to prayer and confession if necessary, calling on the gifts of the Holy Spirit to begin anew. God always forgives, his mercy is always offered, when we own up.
Accepting our moral responsibilities is never easy, which is why we need prayer and the sacraments. Treating others with respect and dignity can at times seem burdensome. Standing up for what is right among our friends can be awkward. In the short run that is true, but when we do the right thing, there is a sense of peace that comes because we know we are putting God first. Pope Saint John XXIII reportedly had a crucifix placed within eyesight of his bed, so that when he woke in the morning the first thing he would see would be Christ on the cross, crucified and he said a prayer knowing how heavy a burden he faced, ‘if you could take it Lord, so can I.”
Tuesday is election day which ought to challenge us to express our faithful citizenship with an informed conscience; we are both Catholic and American. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI declared blessed an Austrian named Franz Jaggerstatter. After living a wild life as a youth he encountered Christ in his heart and became a devote Catholic in the midst of Nazism which he viewed as incompatible with the Catholic faith. For this he was criticized and shunned. When Hitler called for a vote on whether Austria should join Hitler’s empire, he was the only person in his village to vote no. One vote no. When he was called to military service he refused to serve because he concluded that the war was unjust. Some in his family and others including some in the Church urged him to compromise so as to save his life. He wrote, “Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death. I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying.” Eventually he was arrested, imprisoned and executed. He wrote from prison to his god-child, “Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives – often in horrible ways – for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal someday, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith.” Such Christian persecution both direct and subtle is part of our day.
We are all called to be saints. Most of us are not called to be martyrs in the same way Franz was. But we are called to be heroes of the faith by standing up for what we know to be right even when unpopular, by treating others with respect and dignity, and by loving God with our whole beings.
As the psalm puts it so simply: ‘I love you, O Lord, my strength, O Lord my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.” That is the bottom line: I love you O Lord.