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November 4, 2018
[Immaculate Conception Church, Lihue (Diocesan Congress of Filipino Catholic Clubs)]
Sometimes it only takes one word to change everything. A hurtful word can destroy a relationship. A forgiving word can rebuild it. And it has only taken the change of one word in the first commandment of the Ten Commandments to create the very toxic culture we are experiencing today where there are so many factions, not only politically, but even in the Church. In many ways, we have effectively changed “I am the Lord your God; you shall not have other gods before me,” to “I am the Lord MY God; you shall not have other gods before me.” This is what I call “ego-theism,” in which each person thinks he or she is a god. “I” decide what truth is. “I” decide when life begins and when it ends. “I” decide what gender I will be. “I” decide what love is and what hate is. With this situation, how could we not have more contention between us, because then we all become competitors with each other. If I am god, after all, if I disagree with you, you must be wrong. And if you are god and you disagree with me, I must be wrong. Because we have accepted changing this first and basic commandment, just with one word, we have created a world of division rather than of unity; a world where we tear each other down rather than build each other up.
Jesus teaches us a remedy for this disease that tears us apart from one another. He makes it clear that the first and most important commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He knows that if we get this right, then everything else will fall in place the way it should, so that it will ultimately be for our own best interests. This is why he then goes on with the second basic commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While he wants us to value ourselves, if we follow these commandments, there is no danger of making ourselves gods and taking the path that will ultimately lead to our disintegration, rather than to our integration with one another in one Body, in one loving human family.
But it is easy to misunderstand what true love means. It needs to be pointed out that the gospel passage we heard today took place during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, where he had gone as a Passover pilgrim, when he confronted the scribes, the Pharisees, and the chief priests so much that they had him put to death. He did not mince words with them and said some things to them that today we might call “hate speech,” because he called them hypocrites, a brood of vipers, and blind guides. If someone called us these names, we might be livid as well and want to take our vengeance against that person. Or we could listen and be as honest with ourselves as Jesus is with us, so that we can be converted and live. Jesus said many comforting things for sure, but he, who is God, and therefore Love itself, also said some very upsetting things in order to shake people out of their self-centeredness and to make clear to them the urgency to focus on God and on God’s commandments rather than our own.
And so we come to a situation where people are choosing not to worship God on Sundays. Our October counts indicate that the numbers who attend Mass are dwindling. And so this unique opportunity we have to worship the one, true and living God as his faithful creatures and servants can lead many to think they themselves are gods. If I am god, after all, why would I want to worship the competition? Why would I go to hear a truth that is perennial and eternal, since I would rather create my own truth? And so, the first commandment is not only changed but ignored. And if we truly believe in God, aren’t we obliged to make efforts to invite others to worship the true God, so that they are less inclined to accept the “ego-theism” of our culture? What can each of us do, as good stewards, to share the good news of God’s love for us and to invite others to come, worship the Lord? If we approach them with a spirit of self-righteousness, they will sense that right away and will probably be repulsed. But if we say it as a way of worshipping God, there is a greater chance we will be more effective.
When we are faithful to these basic commands of love of God, neighbor and self, it also means our love must be lived, not just something we talk or sing about. Sometimes that may mean doing things we enjoy, such as being with family and friends. But it may mean confronting people, just as Jesus did, so that they will be more motivated to change their self-destructive or other-destructive ways. If someone is constantly bickering with a spouse, and we know that such bickering is destructive of the relationship, are we loving that person if we say nothing? Or wouldn’t love be more like telling the person something he or she may not want to hear but needs to hear. If we try to order our body politic on principles based on the Gospel and our love of God and his commandments, we may be deemed to be hateful, because there will be those who oppose what we say. But even if it brings us persecution, we need to speak and live the truth, because in that way we worship God not just with words but with deeds.
Our example of loving God above all things is what counts most, but sometimes we also need to have the courage to speak about it, so that right worship will be restored and the peace we all long for can become a reality.