Friends, not slaves! Our Lord offers His disciples the exhilarating possibility of being His friends. Yes, but you had better read on. Because there are requirements.
Today’s reading from Acts reminds us that God doesn’t care about our family tree. Whether Jew or Greek, all have equal access to the Father. We don’t need an impressive genealogy; we need faith, a faith that must be translated into action – what we call love.
Unfortunately, love is a word that has lost power in our society; but the Epistle of John stresses the fact that love does have power when there is genuine concern and action, and underscores the essence of love by holding up God’s definitive act in offering us His only Son. God doesn’t talk about love. He demonstrates it concretely and irrevocably.
Jesus says that the acid test of friendship (that love which is friendship) must be manifest in obedience to His Father’s commandments. Nor are those commandments to be obeyed in a slavish or grudging way (remember, we are not slaves but friends!). Rather, our obedience springs from a desire to show our deep sense of devotion and commitment to the God who has called us into a loving relationship with Him. Our obedience, then, is really an act of gratitude.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the rich young man. Mark says the Lord simply told him to remember the Commandments. The youth replied: “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” He must have spoken with great honesty and sincerity, for “Jesus looking upon him loved him.” (see Mk 10::17–22) The Lord sought to move him beyond the Commandments to a life of voluntary poverty; he was unprepared for that and walked away sad.
We usually zero in on the young man’s inability to forgo his wealth and follow Christ. But that’s really not fair. After all, he asked what he had to do to be saved; Our Lord simply told him to keep the Commandments. He said he had done so since his youth – no small accomplishment! How many of us could say the same?
Modern Americans tend to have an unhealthy attitude toward other eras and cultures. We judge them by our provincial standards and thus fail to see our own flaws. One of our blind spots lies in the realm of law. Law and lawmakers we routinely perceive as enemies of freedom and fulfillment.
But “law” is mentioned hundreds of times in Scripture. The most popular of the “Wisdom Books,” the Book of Psalms, begins with praise of the person who obeys God’s Law: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Psalm 119, the longest, is a reflection on the meaning and beauty of the divine Law, which is seen as both a command and a promise.
“All you need is love” was a famous song of the 1960s, which thought it was the first age to have discovered love. St. Augustine sixteen centuries earlier said: “Love, and then do whatever you will.” Even Augustine wasn’t first in that regard, for he drew on Christ’s insight that love is the fulfillment of the Law (see Mt 22:37-40).
Love, then, is more important than the Law? Not exactly, because Jesus was not proclaiming a new teaching, but quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically
What’s the context of those two passages? The giving of the Law. In other words, there is no conflict between law and love. The Law springs from love (God’s); obedience to the Law likewise springs from love (man’s). The Law guarantees love as the Commandments specify the precise meaning of love and don’t allow vague generalities that dilute the power of love.
If we look on the Commandments with the mind and heart of a devout Jew, we’ll see in them a divine blueprint for human happiness, the keys to human liberation – keys that free us from our baser human instincts and cause us to respond to the best within the human heart.
That’s what the Lord God meant when He said: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. . . .it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts: You have only to carry it out” (Dt 30:11, 14).
As a young Anglican clergyman, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman felt compelled to teach his hearers how to repair the damage done by failures to keep God’s Commandments – and how to avoid that necessity in the future:
If anyone who hears me is at present moved by what I have said, and feels the remorse and shame of a bad conscience, and forms any sudden good resolution, let him take heed to follow it up at once by acting upon it. . . .For this reason; – because if he does not, he is beginning a habit of inattention and insensibility. God moves us in order to make the beginning of duty easy. If we do not attend, He ceases to move us. Any of you, my brethren, who will not take advantage of this considerate providence, if you will not turn to God now with a warm heart, you will hereafter be obliged to do so (if you do so at all) with a cold heart; —which is much harder. God keep you from this!
In touching language, Christ tells us that He wants us to share His joy completely – and in love, He gives us the path to that joy: observing the Commandments. Obedience leads to friendship; friendship to joy, true joy, and “no one will take your joy from you.” (Jn 16:22)
Image: Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889 [Riverside Church, New York City]