Love, and Do What You Will
August 31, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8)
Reading II (James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27)
Gospel (St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
In the first reading today from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people telling them that they are to observe carefully all of the statutes and all of the commandments which he presents before them. For the Jewish people, that meant 613 specific laws that they had to follow. Now it did not start that way. For the people of Israel, it started with a great freedom to be able to serve the Lord in love. Then they sinned, and with each time that the people sinned there were more laws that were placed upon them. It began with the Ten Commandments and wound up with 613. But even with that, Moses was able to say to the people, There is no other nation that has a god so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon Him; and there is no law in any other nation which is so just, so wise, as the law that I am placing before you today.
The law was perfect in the sense that it was an expression of the Will of God for His people. Those laws, like rules in our homes, are set up to keep the proper boundaries so that the children know what they are to do and what they are not to do. They know when they cross the boundaries and they know they are in trouble. Now the difficulty with the law, as Saint Paul makes very clear, is that no one will be saved by the observance of the law because no one can observe it perfectly. Well, two people did: Our Lady and Our Lord; but otherwise there would be no one who would be saved by obedience to the law. Imagine having to stand before the Lord and being able to say, “Throughout my entire life, I never once violated any one of Your 613 precepts.” There is not one of us who can stand before the Lord and say, “I’ve never even violated one of the ten original precepts,” let alone the 603 that followed after that.
The problem, when we look at the second reading from the Letter of Saint James, is he tells us that in God there is no alteration and no change. And there is not. God cannot change. God is perfect and if He could change that would imply that He is imperfect, that there is something outside of Him that can cause Him to change. If He can change He is just like us, maybe a little bit more intelligent, but just like us nonetheless. If God is just like us then there is no sense worshiping Him; you may as well worship yourself, which is the American way anyhow. So it is fitting that we understand exactly what this means. If God cannot change and there can be no alteration in God, how is it that there can be these 613 precepts which are laid before the people and Moses tells them that if they follow these they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence before the nations, and that everyone else will be able to say, “Look at the intelligence of these people”? Unfortunately, they left us a legacy to be able to demonstrate that they were not so intelligent about following the law of God. All one needs to do is read the Old Testament and see that they did not do what Moses told them to do.
But now there has been a change – we no longer need to follow the 613 precepts of the law. We have the Ten Commandments that we must follow, as those are divine law, but most of the other ones with regard to ritual purity and the various ritual laws have all gone to the side. All of the moral laws remain, but all of the ritual laws have been done away with. Now if God does not change and there is no alteration of any kind in God, how is it possible that the law can change? It is not that God has changed; it is that the way we relate to God has changed, and that is because His Son came down to us and He gave us a new commandment. That commandment is to love.
As I mentioned, Saint Paul tells us that no one will be saved by the observance of the law. But Saint James in the second reading tells us that the Word, which is already in your heart, can save you. And so we see where the difference lies. The law would not be able to save us, but the Word of God, Who is Jesus Christ, Who is within our hearts if we are in the state of grace, does have the power to save us. And the Word of God is nothing other than love. God is love. Jesus Christ is God, therefore, Jesus Christ is love. And that Love of God has been poured forth into your hearts so that you can cry out in the Holy Spirit, Abba! Father! There is a different kind of relationship that has been established. Not that there is any change in God at all, but the change has taken place within us in our relationship to God. It is no longer that we are merely His people in an objective sense at an arm’s distance saying that you have to follow these laws, but rather we are His children now. We have been incorporated into Jesus Christ; we are members of the Word of God. So there is no change on God’s part but on ours. Therefore, the way we relate to God is no longer objective but subjective. It is no longer a matter of following an external set of laws, but it is now to follow the law of the heart, that is, the law of love.
Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, said, Love, and do what you will. Now your typical American teenager would think that says, “I can do anything that I want. He said to do whatever I want.” He said, “Love, and do what you will.” As Saint Paul makes very clear, love never wrongs the neighbor; love always seeks the good of the other. Love is self-sacrificing. That is why Saint Augustine can say, Love, and do what you will, because if you truly love you will not do anything wrong; you will not offend God and you will not do anything that would offend your neighbor. And that is the Word that has been planted in your heart that can save you. It is no longer a matter of trying to live the law perfectly, which no one is able to do; but it is now for us a matter of learning how to love perfectly, which every last one of us is able to do.
Tragically, even among Christian people, most do not do that because most of us, like the people of Israel, do not want to hear the Word of God and put it into practice. We like to hear the Word of God, but acting on it is a problem for us. This is exactly what Saint James addresses in the second reading. He says in a rather funny translation, Be doers of the word, not merely hearers of the word. In other words, if the Word of God is Jesus Christ and He has been poured forth into your hearts, you must live the life of Jesus Christ. It is one thing to hear over and over again every week that we are baptized into Jesus Christ, that the grace of God is in our hearts, that we are members of Christ, and so on, and then we can go home and continue to live like the pagans around us. What good is that going to do? In fact, all that is going to do is earn for us a deeper place in hell because we knew better. We heard it, we knew what the truth was, and we rejected it. God is calling each and every one of us to an intimate relationship with Himself, and He is calling us to love.
We can look at what Our Lord said in the Gospel because the Word of God has been poured forth into our hearts, and that Word of God is the Word of Love; it is the very Person of Jesus Christ. And so the Lord tells us in the Gospel, It is not what goes into a man that makes him defiled but what comes out. It is a question of what is in the heart. Oftentimes, all we need to do if you want to know what is in the heart is listen to the words that come out of your mouth. Look at the actions that you perform throughout the day. Those are the things that will defile us if they are bad, if they are not done in love. Look at the list that Our Lord talks about: greed, envy, lust, licentiousness, drunkenness, and all these different things. He tells us, These are the things that come out of the human heart. These are the things that defile us.
When we read about Our Lord or Our Lady or any one of the saints, what we will find are people from whose hearts flowed love. It was not any hatred. It was not any selfishness. It was not anything but love. Now the nice thing for us is that the Church has thousands of saints who are just like us. Our Lord and Our Lady were perfect, and they always were from the very first instant. But the rest of the saints were not. All the rest of the saints are just like us: sinners. We have a handful of exceedingly extraordinary saints who never once committed a mortal sin in their entire life, but that is a small handful. The rest of the thousands of saints are just like us: rather extraordinary sinners instead of rather extraordinary saints, initially. But they turned that around. They looked at those things that were in their hearts that made them defiled and they got rid of them. They replaced that which was not of God with that which is of God – with the very Word of God Himself – so that the words they spoke were Jesus Christ, the actions they performed were Jesus Christ, the life they lived was Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we can look at that and think, “But then I’m not going to be myself.” Quite the contrary. God will never ever violate you – ever – in any way, shape, or form, because He loves you and love never does anything wrong. God is not going to violate you in any way. Therefore, if you are willing to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, you will become the person God created you to be. You will find fulfillment. You will find joy. You will find a happiness that you have never known in your life. It will be exactly what Our Lord told us, that He tells us these things so your joy may be complete. Not the fleeting little joys of the world, not even the glimpses of the joy that we have from some profound moment in prayer that then goes away because we have not achieved that depth of love yet, but a joy that is complete because we are in union with Jesus Christ, we are in union with Love.
That is the law of God which will never change. The 613 precepts of the old law were expressions of God’s love for His people to be able to say, “If you follow these laws you will not hurt yourself and you will not violate one another.” He had to do that because the people refused to accept His love. They did not understand Who He was. But we now have that understanding. It is not apart from us. It is no longer anything that is objective, but rather it is in your hearts. None of us will be able to stand before God and say, “But I didn’t know.” All we have to do is go right into the heart and we will find the Holy Trinity dwelling there if we are in the state of grace. We all know that. If we stand before God and have to tell Him, “I lived my entire life and never sought You in my heart,” that will be a sad day because He will tell us that He was there for us every moment of every day, and we sought Him elsewhere – or did not seek Him at all.
The law of the Lord is perfect, and the law of the Lord is love. The law of the Lord is expressed by Saint Augustine in the most beautiful way: Love, and do what you will. That is all – just simply love. And that will never change. Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians tells us that ultimately the greatest of all the gifts are faith, hope, and love; and it is love alone that will never end because for all eternity in Heaven that is all we will do. Remember that the level of your love, and therefore the level of your place in Heaven, depends on how much you love in this life. The amount of love you have when you die is the amount of love you will have for all eternity. So do not try to love God as little as possible. Do not try to figure out how much you can get away with and still get into Heaven. Do not try to figure out, “If I just can squeeze that last spot in Heaven, I can live it up in this life and, boy, I can still barely get in but I can do it.” It is the wrong attitude. Why would you want to love God as little as you possibly can for the rest of eternity? It does not make sense. That is a selfish attitude, not a disposition of love. God is calling us to love, not a little, but perfectly; and He is calling us to Himself. Therefore, we need to make up our minds to reject sin, to reject Satan and all his works and empty promises, and to seek to truly love God and love neighbor, the commandment of Christ. Love, and do what you will.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.