Often, when I hear the question, “Do you love me?” I think of a beautiful scene in the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye, the rabbi-like milkman, asks his wife Golde if she loves him. In an amusing exchange Golde answers his question: “Do I love you? For twenty-five -years I have washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children and milked your cow!” Tevye continues to press her for an answer to his question and grudgingly she says: “I suppose I do.” Tevye concludes with a playful answer: “I suppose I love you too.”
Their marriage was the the product of a “matchmaker” who arranged the union based on convenience and tradition, not love. However, in times of crisis their marriage would be sustained by tradition and love, even if no words were spoken. In the upheavals of the Russian revolution and the displacement from their home and country, both Tevye and Golde would understand that their love for each other would be forever.
Our gospel reading for this Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 22:34-40, draws us into the realm of love filled with certainty and respect. The Pharisees, still plotting to entrap Jesus, retained a lawyer who would pose a clever question to test Jesus’ knowledge of the Law:
Since all of the commandments found in the Torah required equally strict observance, Jesus was being set-up to embarrass himself by pitting one commandment against another. Refusing to be entrapped, Jesus would not give the polarized list the Pharisees were looking for; rather, he would cite the great prayer (the Shema) that was to be repeated twice daily by all devout Jews. “Loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The center of vitality and consciousness for Jews in the time of Jesus resided in the heart. Creating a link between the Shema and the practicality of loving one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), was a heartfelt response to the love that God had for his creation. The addition of the codicil: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” would find its complement in the shadow of the Shema.
“Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” Jesus responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your entire mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The question asked of Jesus, “Which commandment of the Law is the greatest?” is found in all three of the Synoptic gospels (Mark 12:34-40; Luke 10:25-28; Matthew 22:34-40). In the gospels of Mark and Luke, the individuals asking the question did so with a sense of sincerity and genuine curiosity, unlike the lawyer in today’s reading. In a strict interpretation of the Law, pitting one commandment against another might be grounds for death. Jesus linked the great commandment and the practical application of it in such a way that the compassion of God would trump the legalistic machinations of the religious leaders.
All of our readings for this Sunday are rich with invitations to loving God and our neighbor. Keeping in mind that God first loved us, we are invited to love our neighbor as God has loved us. The promise of the Messiah and the confirmation of God’s covenant of forgiveness allow us the freedom to love and forgive one another.
Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest rabbinic scholars regarding the Torah and the teacher of Saul (St. Paul), succinctly summarized the Law when he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” The implications of this “Golden Rule” would take precedence in the theology of Jesus when, in a passage from the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 7:12), he said: “In everything do to others as you would have them do unto you.”
In a world in which we can so easily dichotomize and demonize our neighbors, this practical ethic of love demands that we eliminate hatred of our neighbor. Easier said than done, you might say. Surrounded by multiple wars in the world, as well as displays of violence and rioting in our own country, we must guard against appearing naïve or being co-opted by evil. The reciprocity of love, not hate, is the greatest antidote for rediscovering peace in the world. Sadly, however, this lesson of love remains just a work in progress.
In this Sunday’s reading from the Book of Exodus (22:21-27), the Lord commands: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.” This on-going invitation to care for the poor, the arriving immigrant, the unemployed and marginalized human beings becomes the imaginative task of the Church and the repetitive challenge of individuals.
In Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians (1:5-10), one of the earliest written theological documents of the Church (approximately 50 A.D.), Paul commends the people: “You have turned away from idols to serve a living and a true God and one another.” Paul encourages his followers to be imitators of Christ, looking always for invaluable examples of those who have given their lives in service of the Gospel.
On my last trip to Jerusalem, one of my hotel rooms possessed a decorative metal case attached to the doorframe. Known as a “mezuzah,” the case contained a tiny copy of the “Great Shema.” and was a reminder that the “Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord with your whole heart, with all your soul, and with your entire mind.” Traditionally, two fingers are placed on the mezuzah each time you enter and leave a Jewish home and the fingers are kissed as a sign of God’s love. In actuality, the gift of God’s love when entering and leaving the home should always be shared by one’s neighbor.
In a similar form of ritual, growing up in my Irish Catholic home, holy water fonts were reminders of the blessings shared by all who would enter and leave our home. Making the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” served as a reminder of one’s baptism and the need for God’s blessing.
Knowing that God does love us is an invitation to certainty and the diminishment of fear. Even without having to ask the question “Do you love me,” it was always comforting to know the answer.
I have a smooth stone on my desk serving as a paper weight. Engraved with the inscription, “Do you know what?” I often hold it in my hand and inevitably turn the stone over in search of an answer. The answer to the question: “Do you know what? Is always the same: “I love you.” My mother often said this to me and to others and I never got the impression there were limitations with her love. I was thankful for the good friend who gave me the engraved stone after my mother’s death. It has become a “touch stone,” especially when it seems hard to love some of my neighbors.
In this time of uncertainty, especially as the war in the Ukraine escalates into treats of nuclear brinksmanship, we must find ways to smother hate with love and deescalate threats of violence with peace. With the the chaos of a presidential election on the horizon, we must find ways to bask in the light of truth and overshadow the contentiousness of deceit and self-interest. While it seems easier to identify the hateful and fearful issues that divide us, the more we rely on the grace of God, we might find the strength to move beyond bellicose rhetoric and ask the question: “Do you know what?
What is so wrong in being polite with one another, acknowledging our differences and searching for common ground infused with love rather than fear and hate? Paradoxically, as we have historically moved through a phase of social distancing and mask wearing, we discovered that these odd rituals need not be barriers to intimacy. Rather, in creative ways of expressing our love for each other, we might even risk “washing clothes, cooking meals, cleaning houses and maybe even milk cows!” for one another.
I have a hunch that both Tevye and Golde were right: “Do you love me? I suppose I love you too.”
Peace, Fr. Joe Gillespie, O.P.