The Greatest of All is Love
February 1, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19) Reading II (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 )
Gospel (St. Luke 4:21-30)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul, in what is perhaps the most well known of all the passages in Sacred Scripture, tells us about love. Now the problem is that when we read this passage we tend to read not necessarily what Saint Paul says, but we try to make Saint Paul say what we want to hear. And so, many people read this passage all about charity, or love, and somehow they think that Saint Paul is talking about some variety of amorous emotion. That is not what Saint Paul is talking about at all. In fact, if you read toward the end of the reading again, in all of the characteristics of love nowhere does he say, “Love is an emotion.” Nowhere does he say, “Love feels good.” Nowhere does he say that love is about yourself or having your needs met or being fulfilled in a relationship. Nowhere do we find any of those things. In fact, what we find him saying is just exactly the opposite: that love is focused on the other person. It is patient, it is kind, it is gentle, it is not self-seeking, and so on. It is always about the other. And that is the only way we are going to find the fulfillment that love can bring is if we are seeking the good of the other rather than seeking the good of the self. But that is not always an easy thing for us to do, especially in this society that knows not love.
We live in a society that is so completely focused on the self and there is so much in our society that reminds us that we “need” to be focused on the self (or so they say) that it is very easy to fall into that trap, and it is extremely difficult to get out of it because love requires a great deal of work. That, again, is something that most of us do not really want to do. We have the idea that love is something that comes to us, which, of course, in a relationship is true, on one part of it; but because love by its very nature has to be reciprocal, it requires giving. In fact, when love is true, when it is real, it does not matter to the individual how much is coming back; all that matters is what you give. But most of us, again, look at it the other way and we want to know what we are going to get. That is the wrong attitude. So whether it is in a human relationship or whether it is in our relationship with the Lord, we need to look at what we are giving not what we are getting.
When we think about what Saint Paul tells us, he tells us that if we have faith enough to move mountains, if we have all the tongues of men and angels, if we have knowledge of all the mysteries, even if we are willing to hand over our bodies to be burned, but if these things are not done in love, we have nothing. It is worthless. It is just a show for ourselves and it will not get us anywhere near heaven; it is going to lead us exactly the opposite direction. So if you have ever prayed earnestly for something that seems like something very good, some kind of spiritual gift from the Lord, and you did not get it, chances are that the reason why it did not come your way is because if it had you very well might have lost your salvation because you would have been so puffed up with pride over this wonderful gift that God had given as though somehow the gift that God gave was something you did on your own. The Lord loved you too much to allow that to happen, and therefore withheld the gift for which you were asking because, as wonderful as the gift may have been, to be able to be with God forever in heaven is infinitely greater. God will give us His spiritual gifts provided that the use of those gifts will get us closer to heaven. We know that there are some to whom those gifts are given and certainly given with the right intent, but we see how easily that can get turned around.
We need to look very carefully at this, however. We read, for instance, in the first reading, that God tells the prophet Jeremiah that He has made Jeremiah a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass against the people, that He has hardened Jeremiah. Not hardened him in arrogance, not hardened him in some kind of prideful manner in which he is going to be able to bulldoze the people – that is not what it was about – but rather what God was hardening Jeremiah to do was to withstand the attack that the people would unleash against him. If you read the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, you will see what God required of His prophet. He was thrown in fetters; he was tossed into a cistern; he was put in prison; he went into exile with the people. His life was not a cakewalk.
Now most of us, if we were to pray for the gift of prophecy, we usually have it wrong because we think that the gift of prophecy is about predicting the future, but it is about telling the people God’s Will for them. It is about telling them the truth. And each one of us, by the way, does already have the gift of prophecy that comes with baptism. It is the office of the teacher. Jesus is a Priest, a Prophet, and a King. Therefore, each one of us, as members of Jesus Christ, is a priest, a prophet, and a king. The office of the prophet is the office of a teacher, and it is to teach by both word and example – especially the latter. As Saint Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach always, and when necessary use words.” But as any of us who have tried to do this knows all too well, it is not usually a very popular thing. It is a quick way of getting ostracized, of being rejected and ridiculed, of being the butt of all kinds of rumors and gossip, of being accused falsely of all sorts of things.
When that happens, we need to look at what our reaction is. Do we get angry and defensive? Do we go to God and scream and complain and say, “Why are You doing this to me?” Do we get puffed up with pride saying, “Ha! See, I irritated them,” and therefore we somehow think that we are great because we have caused a ruckus. You see, we need to be careful. The devil does not care which end of the scale he gets you to fall off of; all he cares is that you fall off. He does not care if it is pride in arrogance or if it is pride in self-pity. It matters not to him, as long as he can get you caught in the pride, or perhaps in doubt: “This must not have been what God wanted of me because, after all, if it was of God it would be easy and I would be seeing great fruit being borne from this. Nobody is turning around that I can see, so therefore this must not be what God wants. I’ll just have to be like everyone else.” Or maybe, “It just seems too hard and it’s not worth it after all.” Now if that is the attitude we have, I need to ask the next question: What is worth it, then? You have just determined that your soul and the souls of the other people are not worth going to heaven. It is not worth a little bit of suffering to be able to go to heaven. So if a soul – which is immortal – is not worth it, then what is? And if it is worth losing your own soul to become like everyone else, then one needs to ask what is worth doing what God wants us to do and what is worth doing it in the way that God wants us to do it.
You see, ultimately, if God is going to give to any of us a spiritual gift – and He has given each of us plenty – it is to be able to grow in love. When we look at the Gospel reading, we realize that most people do not want to know the truth. They do not want to hear it. They like their self-imposed ignorance. They like the life of sin into which they have cast themselves headlong. And if you are going to come along and try to live according to the way of Christ, they will not like you. But remember the words of Our Lord: “If they hate you, it is because they hated Me first.” If the grace is given to you to be a fortified city and a wall of brass like it was to Jeremiah, that is not your doing. If the grace is given to you to be able to be an example and to be able to withstand all of the rebuttals and all of the ridicule that come your way, that is the grace of God at work – be careful not to take credit for it yourself. But also, keep going back and looking at those characteristics of love. Notice that Saint Paul does not say that when people reject you it is okay to get angry, that if people do not like to hear what you have to say it is okay to gossip about them, that if people ridicule you it is okay to ridicule in return. He does not say any of those things. Rather when these things come our way, we have to handle them with patience, with kindness, with gentleness, with a selfless kind of love that is going to speak more eloquently than any words that we would ever be able to speak.
One of the things we need to be exceedingly careful about is that God in His mercy has given to each one of us a desire – and, I trust, a love – for His truth that what we want is the fullness of His truth. But we also must realize that the average Catholic these days does not know very much about what that truth is. They have not been taught and it is not their fault. Certainly, they bear some responsibility to be able to learn the truth just as each one of us has had to do. But the question has to do with our attitude toward them. Do we stand in a judgmental way looking at them? In a prideful way? Do we put them down? Do we think that somehow we are better than they because we have “got it” and they do not? Imagine standing before the Lord one day and hearing Him say, “You had faith, but you had not love; therefore, you had nothing at all.” That would not be a good day. If we have faith, it must be exercised in love.
Look once again at the characteristics of love and ask yourself, “Is this me? Is this what people see when they speak to me, when they see my example? Am I patient and kind and gentle and selfless? Am I enduring all things and bearing all things and accepting all things? Am I truly seeking only the good of the other? Am I doing it in a way that will build them up rather than tearing them down?” That is what love requires. Each one of us needs to look extremely seriously at this matter because Saint Paul makes it exceedingly clear: If we have not love, we have NOTHING. Jesus commanded us to love; He did not make it an option. He did not say, “If you have faith, you don’t need love. If you have the gift of prophecy, you don’t need love. If you have found the truth, you don’t need love.” Nowhere will we find that. But love encompasses all of these other things, which is why, if we do not have love, we do not have the fullness of faith, the fullness of truth. If we have no love, we have no part in Jesus Christ, because God is love and only those who love can know God.
So, when all is said and done, it all comes down to one thing – and that is love. Again, that is not a nice emotion. It is not about happy feelings because love is truth, and so it encompasses the fullness of truth and the fullness of faith and the fullness of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But of all other things nothing matters, because if we have not love we have nothing at all. And so we need, once again, to examine our consciences very carefully on this matter; and we need to beg God, not for anything for ourselves, not for some gift that is going to make us look good in the eyes of others, but for the one gift that is eternal – that is, for a greater share in the very love of God Himself – because of all things, the only one that matters and the greatest of all is love.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.