Sermon: How do you love God?
"Which is the first of all the commandments?"
When we hear this scribe – this scholar of the Jewish law – ask Christ this question, it is easy to think that he is being disingenuous. Doesn’t someone so learned already know the answer to this question? Don’t we all know that to love God and our neighbor are the great commandments?
We know this – hopefully – because Christ’s definitive answer to this question echoes through the centuries in our common knowledge of the faith. Some people make it more catchy: “Love God. Love people.” But in the Lord’s own day, this was actually an open question. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah – the first five books of the Bible that contain the Jewish law – contains 613 commandments. Picking out the most important was not easy.
So Christ distills those 613 commandments into these two: love of God and love of neighbor. But what does it really mean to love God? A couple years ago, I ran into a young child in the halls of our school one evening, and asked what she was doing there at school at night. Her father was leading a Bible study, but it’s hard to explain a Bible study to a five-year-old child. She told me what her dad probably had told her that he would be doing that evening: “He is teaching people how to love God. They don’t know how to love God, so he is teaching them how.”
Teaching people how to love God. That is something that we as Catholics don’t do nearly enough of. We spend a lot of time teaching people about God – in our schools, religious education classes, and our families – but we could probably do a lot better actually teaching people how to love Him. Christ does both. He teaches us about God – “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” quoting the Book of Deuteronomy, emphasizing that God is not just the most powerful among many gods but the one and only God – but He also teaches us how to love by His words and actions.
Christ tells us today that we need to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Let’s break down those four kind of loves of God that we ought to have.
The word He uses for “soul” means life, existence, being. It’s the same word He used when He told us a few weeks ago that “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” Loving God with our whole soul means loving God with our whole life, being willing to give everything to Him. It’s the kind of love we talked about two weeks ago when we were invited to drink the Lord’s chalice – to lend Him our flesh in order to make Christ present in the world.
To love God with our whole strength emphasizes that love is not merely an emotion or sentiment. Love is an act of the will, a firm decision and choice to pursue the authentic good of another. It is not only spontaneous, but it is commitment that requires every ounce of our energy. It means planning our life around our love for God. But if love means willing the good of another, how do we love God since He doesn’t need anything from us? God is not like a human person for whom things could go well or not.
Willing God’s good means working for God’s greater honor and glory. This is what religion is all about. Religion is not just a set of religious beliefs and practices to be studied by anthropologists. It is a virtue, a part of the virtue of justice. Justice means rendering to each his due. What is due to God is worship, recognition that He alone is God and worthy of all our love and devotion – not the false gods of the world. This is something that requires all our strength – to consistently make the choice each and every day for God to be the highest priority in our lives.
Love is always associated with the heart. This “is the inner depths of a person, the wellspring from which all our decisions and actions flow.” Love isn’t just about our choice and the strength of our will. It’s about our passion and desire. This is the part of love that the ancients called “eros.” It’s a lot more than what we think of as “erotic.” It means the desire for union, in which, as we saw last Sunday, love finds its fulfillment. We also saw last Sunday, though, that it is easy for the desires of our hearts to be pointed to false loves and false unions, which can “overcrowd our minds, using up the passion and longing of the human soul on something that can never satisfy.”
This is why we have to love the Lord with all our mind as well, because the mind – the human intellect – can cultivate and purify our desires. On July 4th this year, I brought to your attention a powerful contemporary ideology called “expressive individualism” that define’s our contemporary approach to human life and identity. Fulfillment, this ideology tells us, is found in expressing who I feel myself to be, which I can determine after an intense process of examining my own emotions and desires.
But the authentic vision of the human person taught to us by Christ and His Church is very different. It sees emotions, passions, and desires not as a primordial given, but as something that can be shaped and cultivated. We are constantly cultivating our desires.
Let me give a stark example: From 1970 to the early 2010s, a consistent 3.5 percent of the American population identified as LBGT. By 2017 it was 4.5 percent, and by 2021 5.6 percent. 2017, it was 8 percent of young people, and in 2021 now 11.5 percent of millennials (born 1980 – 1999), and the number will be much higher in the next generation – Gen Z – given the current exponential growth rate.
Has human nature radically changed from the 1970s until 2021? No. But the kinds of desires that we cultivate certainly have. As Catholics, we do not believe that experiencing same-sex attractions is sinful. We believe that all people are profoundly loved by God. But we do not hesitate to affirm that these desires, like all disordered desires that people experience for things that will not further their authentic good, cannot be acted upon if we are to be faithful to God’s plan for human sexuality.
Desire, then, is not neutral. It is something that can be cultivated. In fact, it is something that we are constantly cultivating at every moment whether we like it or not. You cannot choose whether or not you will cultivate desires. You can only choose which desires you will cultivate and which ones you won’t. And we can observe what kinds of desires are being cultivated by the world around us.
This is why loving God with our whole minds is so important. Modern philosophy has introduced a disconnect between our minds and our bodies, between our brains and our souls. We tend to compartmentalize the mind, thinking that what we fill our minds with, especially the media we consume, won’t affect our desire for God and for the things created by Him that serve our authentic good.
But they will. When we fill our minds with music, images, and media that normalize behaviors contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are forming our desires. The love of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength are all connected. If we do not love God with our whole minds, cultivating desires for good things that bring us closer to Him, we will not be able to love Him with our whole hearts either.
We are faced here with a similar problem to that we saw last week: How can each one of us stand up against these powerful cultural trends? Once again, the way of Jesus Christ starts with each one of us. You have the power to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, cultivating good desires for God and all that He desires for us. Parents and those entrusted with the education of children also have a powerful ability to cultivate the desire of the young for good things, protecting their minds and hearts so that they might love the Lord with all their soul and strength as well. This is the good news – you can not only teach your children about God – you can teach them how to love Him as well – and it works. But we have to start by changing the narrative of what love is all about. We have to move past a shallow conception of love as a selfish gratification of desire and towards the true self-giving love for which the world is starving.
Christ’s teaching about the four-fold love of God took place on Holy Tuesday – only three days before His ultimate act of love for us on the Cross. He is teaching in the Temple, the place of sacrifice. Thus, when the scribe tells him that this intense, four-fold love of God “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” he is making a very bold statement. They stand right within the precincts of the temple, surrounded by the bleating of goats and heifers being led to ritual slaughter, the chanting of prayers, all the hullabaloo of the bizarre marketplace / place of worship that was the ancient Jewish temple. And all of it – all of it – the righteous scribe affirms, is worth nothing in comparison with the complete love offered by Christ.
The “burnt offerings” of the Temple were the greatest sacrifice – that of which there was nothing left to partake because the victim was entirely consumed in the sacrificial fire. This, Christ is telling us, is the sacrifice that He will make, and the sacrifice that He invites us to make as we lend Him not only our flesh, but our hearts, souls, minds, and strength as well.
“The Lord our God is Lord alone!” Partial worship of God, worship that does not give Him all of ourselves, is quite simply no worship at all. When we keep even a small part back for ourselves, when we shut God out of some part of our life, when we do not give Him our whole heart, soul, body, mind, and strength, what we are really saying is that He is not Lord alone, that these other things are gods worthy of our worship as well. Such a God is not God at all, but another idol of silver, gold, or flesh.
“[When] Jesus saw that [the righteous scribe] answered with understanding, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” These words of Christ are for you today as well. If you will commit to giving Him your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength – cultivating desires for what is authentically good and follows His loving plan, and tenaciously pursing His holy will – you too will not be far from His kingdom.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXXI Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI