Sunday, February 12, 2017

Loopholes...or Love?

 Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

Gentlemen: What’s next Tuesday?  St. Valentine’s Day, of course!  (You can thank me later for the reminder.)  Have you ever seen a list of written rules for St. Valentine’s Day?  I haven’t, either, but there certainly are rules for Valentine’s Day, and the quickest way to prove that…is to break them. 

While the specific rules may vary from couple to couple, there are some that are universal.  I can come up with three. The first: Remember that it’s Valentine’s Day.  This is not a day to be forgotten.    Make sure to do something that shows your sweetheart just how much you love her. 

Second: Make sure whatever you give or do is something she actually likes.  While you might think few things could be better than an entire evening at the Monster Truck Show, that might not be to her liking.  True love puts the needs and desires of one’s beloved ahead of your own.  Give her something, do something for her, that you know will truly delight her heart. 

And third: Don’t try to get by with doing the bare minimum.  It part of love’s logic to do as much as possible, not as little.  You’d never come home with just one chocolate—no, you bring a whole box.  Don’t buy her one flower, but as big a bouquet as you can afford.  Love calls us to sacrifice.

Most of us don’t stop to realize that, like these unwritten and generally unspoken rules for St. Valentine’s Day, all of our relationships are governed by similar codes of conduct: husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, among teammates, between coworkers.   Although they may not appear on paper, such rules are rather important.  They don’t exist to limit or restrict us, but to protect and strengthen our relationships—to put them on solid ground.

The trick is, these relational rules exist within a world of many other laws—things like traffic laws and the tax code.  Our approach to these different sets of rules can sometimes get all mixed up.  Have you ever sent the government more money at tax time than you had to, just out of the kindness of your heart?  Or asked the cop to please, please give you that speeding ticket?  Of course not!  In general, our approach to such rules is to squeak by with the minimum required, to get away with as much as we can, to do only as much as we absolutely have to.  But apply that approach to the rules of relationships…and we get into deep trouble pretty fast.

Our scripture readings this Sunday spend a lot of time considering God’s rules: the first reading, psalm, and gospel all focus our attention on keeping the Lord’s commandments.  We often think about God’s Law in fairly legalistic.  I think of W. C. Fields, the actor and comedian from the early 1900’s.  W. C. Fields was an unabashed atheist.  So—the story goes—when an acquaintance saw him thumbing through a Bible not long before he died, he had to ask, “Mr. Fields, what are you doing?”  “Looking for loopholes,” he replied.  That approach—although common—is completely backwards! 

As Jesus makes clear to us today, expounding on three of the Ten Commandments, the Law of God is a lot more like the unwritten rules of St. Valentine’s Day than like the speed limit.  God’s Law isn’t a system of lifeless rewards and punishments, but is made up of living rules meant to strengthen and protect a relationship.  If we make this mistake about God’s Law, we end up looking at him like the Great Traffic Cop in the Sky, waiting to catch us doing something wrong…rather than, as God revealed himself on the Cross, as the great Lover of souls who will stop at nothing—not even death—to win us for himself.

And so we can apply the three rules of St. Valentine’s Day to our relationship with the Lord.  First, we need to remember.  With Jesus, every day is Valentine’s Day.  Not a day goes by when he does not shower us with blessings, making abundantly clear his undying love for you and me.  Likewise we must, not only on special occasions, but each day, and throughout the day, continually express our love for Christ in thought, word, and deed. 

Second, we must give the Lord the things that most delight his Sacred Heart.  When it comes to interpreting and applying God’s law, we're often tempted to do so in way that revolves around what’s most pleasant to us, rather than considering what’s most pleasing to him.  God has told us what he desires: in the commandments spelled out in the Bible, in the doctrines and disciplines of his Church.  Let’s be sure to give the Lord what he wants. 

And finally, we must not settle for doing the least required.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to answer questions like:  So, just how late can I be for Sunday Mass and still have it “count”?  How often do I really have to go to confession?  In effect, we wonder what’s the bare minimum that’s required to be considered a “good Catholic,” how much we can get away with and still avoid the fires of Gehenna.  Such legalistic thinking isn’t the logic of love!  Jesus makes it clear: if we want to follow him, it’s not enough to have avoided murder, adultery, and perjury.  The rules of this relationship call us to aim much higher: to speak in ways that give life, rather than tear down; to never regard another—even in our hidden thoughts—as an object to be used, but as a person with immense dignity; by our every action, to show we’re someone devoted to the truth.  The question we ought to keep asking isn’t, “How much do I have I do?’ but, “How much more can I do?”

Jesus tells us that he hasn’t come to abolish any of the commandments, or even any part of them, but to bring them to fulfillment.  Let us fulfill the rules of our relationship with God by constantly looking for ways to show him our love.  Blessed indeed are those who follow the Law of the Lord!

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