Imitating St. Noel
October 23, 2005
It is difficult for one generation to judge another; and when generations are separated by centuries, the difficulty is compounded. When we look at the life of another person across hundreds of years, our ability to evaluate that life is complicated by differences in ideas, cultures, and economies. Although we can appreciate certain things about his or her life, there will always be much more that we will never fully understand.
This truth is important for us today as we celebrate our patronal feast of St. Noel Chabanel. St. Noel was born 392 years ago in France and died 36 years later here in North America, killed by one of the Huron Indians he was trying to serve. Noel was a Jesuit missionary who came to the New World in order to spread faith in Jesus Christ.
Noel was part of the European conquest of the Americas. When British and Spanish and French explorers came to the new world they brought with them missionaries like Noel to share their faith. Unfortunately the results of those efforts were not entirely positive. Yes, many Native American peoples came to know God’s love through Jesus Christ. But they also experienced the destruction of their native cultures, exploitation by the Europeans for economic benefit, and a number of dangers for which they could never be prepared. For example when the explorers came to this country they unintentionally carried with them European diseases. Historians tell us that the success of the European conquest was not so much due to superior intelligence or armaments, but to the deaths of hundreds of thousand of Native Americans from diseases against which they had no immunity.
Even if we look at Noel himself and his missionary practice, we find many things with which we would disagree. Noel had a very simple concept that Christianity was the only true religion. He believed that his faith was right and the faith of the Native Americans was not only false but without value. There is no way that Noel could appreciate the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which instruct us that true reflections of God’s love can be found in all of the religions of the world. He did not share our belief that we are called to respect those reflections even as we share our own faith with others. If we were to look at Noel’s missionary practice we would undoubtedly find it paternalistic, triumphal and perhaps demeaning.
So with all these differences in time and culture how can St. Noel be our patron? What is there in his life that can benefit us today? The answer can be found in today’s Gospel. Jesus there gives us the Great Commandment: to love God with all our heart, to love our neighbor as ourselves. There is no doubt that Noel followed this commandment. He loved God above all else and he gave his life for his neighbor, risking and losing his life in service of the Huron Indians around the Great Lakes region. Even though we would object to his paternalism and his negative evaluation of the Native American culture, there can be no doubt that Noel gave his best, what he valued the most, his faith in Jesus Christ.
In giving us the Great Commandment notice how wise Jesus was to draw it from the book of Leviticus. For the second part of the commandment directs us to love in a particular way. We are not asked to love others as God loves them, for that would be perfect love and impossible for us. We are asked to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That is something we can do. We can love as we know love. We can give our best to the extent that we recognize what the best is. This is what Noel did and in this we can follow his example.
The truth is every time we love another human being we run the risk of doing some harm. But we still need to love, because the loving is more important than the harm which could accompany it. Parents are asked to love their children. They must do so even though they know that their love will not be perfect and might cause some defects in their children’s lives. Parents are asked to share their faith with their children, even though their faith is weak or imperfect. Friends are asked to speak the truth to their friends, even though it might turn out that the truth they speak is not completely accurate. Workers are asked to give their best, even though subsequent events might prove that their talents could have been better used in another way.
The Gospel calls us to give our best to the extent that we can see what the best is. The Gospel calls us to serve insofar as we understand service. The Gospel calls us to love to the extent that we understand love, to love as we know love ourselves.
Years from now people may look back on our lives and say, “She should have done things differently. His service should have been more enlightened. The love that was given should have been deeper or clearer.” Such things may be said of us, but it is difficult for one generation to judge another. Therefore, we will be doing well, if we stand with St. Noel and give our best to the extent that we can see the best. Doing that is enough. If we give our best, there is nothing to fear, because we will be following Jesus’ command and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The Greatest Three Commandments
October 26, 2008
Matthew 22: 34 – 40
Jesus pulls a fast one in today’s Gospel. A lawyer comes up to him with a simple question: choose from all the commandments one that is the greatest. Jesus answers the lawyer but instead of choosing one commandment he chooses two. And if we look carefully at his response we can find in one of the commandments a third commandment. Instead of coming up with one commandment that is the greatest, Jesus offers three. First, we are to love God with all of our strength. Second, we are to love our neighbor. But we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So the third commandment is that we love ourselves. If you were to ask Jesus, then, what is the great commandment, he would offer this triple commandment of love: love of God, love of self, love of neighbor. He would suggest that this is God’s greatest revelation of how we should act. It is that upon which everything else hangs—both the law and all the prophets. So since this is so important and central a revelation, we should spend a little time reflecting upon it. We can do so by asking ourselves why does Jesus choose three commandments and what are their relationships to each other?
We can start with the command which is most obvious, the commandment to love our neighbor. Now neighbor here is not the person who lives next door. Neighbor is anyone we meet, anyone at all. Our neighbor is everyone in the world. The commandment is we are to love our neighbor. The necessity of this commandment is clear, and its impact cannot be underestimated. Imagine what a different world we could live in, if we could follow this one commandment, if people could relate to one another out of love instead of out of jealousy, greed, and resentment. To follow this commandment would truly change our world. Yet it is a difficult commandment to follow. Why is it that so often that we are unable to love our neighbor? We move now to the second commandment: love of self.
We are so often unable to love our neighbor because we do not have a genuine love of self. Only those who genuinely love themselves are able to love others. Those who consider themselves unworthy and unlovable have no love to give. Those who dominant attitude is one of failure or anger can only strike out to others in jealousy, hatred, or perhaps even violence. In order to genuinely follow the first commandment we must follow the second. We must love ourselves so that we are able to extend love to others. But then how do we establish an adequate love of self? Here the believer knows where to turn – to the third commandment: we are to love God with all our strength.
It is when we understand God’s love for us and can respond to God in love that we discover our worth and our value. God’s love is unconditional and transformative. When we embrace God’s love for us despite all of our mistakes and failings then we understand our true worth and value. Then we can love ourselves, and through that love others.
The great commandment according to Jesus is the triple commandment of love, to embrace God’s love for us, so that we can come to an adequate love of self, so that we can extend that love to others. This commandment of Jesus is not only striking poetry. It is a very practical truth that we can apply to our own lives. When we face other people who are difficult to love, people who irritate us, people who have hurt us, people whose attitude and stance is contrary to what we understand or can appreciate, we sometimes try to love them by finding good in them. But often it is our blindness to their goodness that is the problem in the first place. Therefore, a more successful way to love those that are difficult to love is by finding goodness in ourselves, by remembering that we are chosen sons and daughters of God. By remembering how we have been blessed, how often we have been forgiven for our failings, how frequently we have been lost and God has found us and saved us, how God’s love for us is unconditional, we can gain a sense of how we are worthy and lovable in God’s eyes. It is by claiming God’s love for us that we can find the freedom to spread love to others, even when they are difficult to love.
There is not enough love in our world. All of us can come up with excuses why other people do not deserve our love. It is then that we must remember that we do not deserve God’s love and yet God loves us nevertheless. When we can claim that unconditional love that God has for us, we will be free to love others. Then, and only then, will we know the mystery of living Jesus’ greatest commandment.
Not One Command but Two
October 23, 2011
There is a peculiar twist in today’s gospel, and it is intentional. When one of the teachers of the law asks Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” he poses the most important question that a Jew could ask. For Jews of the first century, like Jesus and the teacher who questioned him, saw in the law the revelation of God’s will. To know the most important commandment of the law, then, was to know what was most important to God and also to discover what was the secret of living. Here is where the twist comes in. When Jesus is asked to give one commandment, he gives two instead: we are to love the Lord God with all of our hearts, and that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Giving two commandments instead of one is intentional. Jesus’ point is that these two commandments are actually one—like two sides of the same coin, like two hands working together, like the way that the sun is both light and heat.
So what is most important to God? What is the secret of living? It is to know that God is a God of love and that we are asked to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and with all of our mind and to know that if our love of God is to be real, then it must be expressed in our love for others. This is the great double commandment of Jesus. To say that we love God is to commit ourselves to love others, and in our love of others, we express our love for God. This great commandment of Jesus is at the heart of Christianity. It has always been so.
I want to share with you a remarkable quotation that was written by a Greek philosopher living in Athens in 125 C.E.—that is about a hundred years after Jesus’ death. His name was Aristides. He was not a Christian. But he wrote a letter to the emperor Hadrian describing the Christians in the city of Athens. His remarkable letter has come down to us. Here is what Aristides says:
“Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. If one of them has something, he gives freely to the one who has nothing without boasting. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy as though he were a real brother. And if they hear that one of them is in jail or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs and, if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any poor or naked, if they have no spare food, they fast for two or three days in order to supply the needy. Truly, this is a new people and there is something divine in them.”
Aristides was able to see something divine in the Christians living in Athens, because he saw how they loved others.
What about us? We’re here today because we believe in God. We come together today to show our love of God. This is good, but when we leave this church, is our love of God visible? Can others see something divine in us? If you want to know, ask your neighbors. Ask your neighbors how they see you. Would they say, “Mrs. Brown? Oh, she has a beautiful yard. She is a wonderful cook.” Or would they say, “She’s somebody who would welcome a stranger, who would never judge anyone by their condition or the color of their skin.” Ask the people you work with how they see you. Would they say, “Oh, Mr. Farmer? He’s smart. He’s a climber. He’s very efficient.” Or would they say, “He’s a person I can trust. He’s a person who gives others a fair shake. He cares for people more than money.” Ask your friends. Would they say, “Joey? Oh Joey’s a good athlete. He’s the life of the party. You always have fun with Joey.” Or would they say, “Joey is someone you can count on. He’ll give you his time if you’re in trouble. He’ll never tear down another person.”
In order to see the divine in us people must see our love of others. Jesus’ great commandment is a double commandment. Each part is essential. To say that we love God and not to love others is following only half the commandment. And following half the commandment is not following the commandment at all.
Two Commands, Side by Side
October 29, 2017
In today’s gospel, we receive the great commandment of Jesus. When Jesus was asked which is the greatest of all the commandments, he picks two of them. One is from the Book of Deuteronomy and one from the Book of Leviticus: We are to love God with all our heart. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Now, which of these two commandments do you think is more difficult to follow? Is it harder to love God? Or is it harder to love our neighbor? We could argue about this question, but I think we could all agree that neither commandment is easy to obey. It is difficult to love God because God is invisible. We cannot touch or hear God. So when crisis enters our life, it is easy to wonder, “Is God present? Does God care?” It is difficult to love God because when bad things happen to us, it is hard to resist the question, “Why did God allow these things to happen? Why did my spouse die? Why is my son addicted to drugs? Why does my friend have cancer?”
It is difficult to love our neighbor because the people in our lives often treat us poorly. They can be selfish, deceptive, manipulative. They can hurt and betray us. It is difficult to love our neighbor because our neighbor can be different from us—different because of race, religion, or culture. People do not all think as we do. They have different goals and values. These differences can make us angry and afraid.
It is difficult, then, both to love God and to love our neighbor. But I think this difficulty is what motivated Jesus to make one commandment out of two, to place the love of God and the love of neighbor together. Because when these two commands are together, they are both easier to follow.
The love of our neighbor can help us love God. God is invisible, but the people God has given to us in our lives are not. We cannot touch or hear God, but we can touch our daughter and hear the words of a friend. So when we wonder whether God is present, whether God cares, the love we have for others can increase our faith. When bad things happen to us, we can lean on others whose faith is strong and thereby move beyond our doubts.
The love of God can help us love our neighbor. When our neighbor treats us poorly, we can remember that God created each person good and placed an inherent dignity in each person’s existence. That goodness can be hidden by poor decisions and sin. But when others irritate or hurt us, we can recall the goodness that each person possesses, and that can make us more patient and more able to forgive. When we become angry or afraid because of the differences among us, the love of God reminds us that God is the source of those differences. God did not make all people the same, but God loves each person equally and sees every person as a son or daughter. Remembering God’s love can help us love our neighbor across the differences that can divide us.
Jesus did not give us one great commandment but two. Jesus placed the love of God and the love of neighbor side by side, because when these two commandments are together, it is easier to follow both of them. So when your faith in God is weak, lean upon the love that you have for others. And when it is difficult to love your neighbor, remember your love for God. This is the way that we follow Jesus’ teaching. This is how we live as his disciples.
The Great Commandment in Beirut
October 24, 2020
Exodus 22:20-26; Matt.22: 34-40
Vivian Yee is a correspondent for the New York Times stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. On August 4th of this year, Beirut was shaken by a tremendous chemical explosion. Many people were killed, and thousands were wounded. Vivian was one of these. Her face was cut by flying glass from her apartment window. As she staggered out onto the street, she entered something like a war zone, with many wounded people seeking assistance.
Vivian reports that on that day of chaos, two things struck her about the city of Beirut: its faith and its service. Its faith was expressed in a greeting that she heard time and again that day. It was spoken in Arabic, but the translation was “Thank God for your safety.” It was an act of faith. When one person saw another person on the street who, even though wounded, was still alive, the person would call out, “Thank God for your safety.” It was as if the whole city was raising its voice to God in thanksgiving for those who survived. Vivian experienced not only faith, but also service. A man riding by on a moped saw her bloody face, and asked her to hop on. He drove her to the hospital where she joined a long line of those waiting for assistance. As he pulled away, he said “Thank God for your safety.” As she waited in line, another stranger named Yoseph asked her to sit on the curb, and carefully washed and bandaged her face. He too thanked God for her safety.
This chaotic scene in the city of Beirut is an apt illustration of Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel. When he is asked “What is the greatest commandment?” he gives two: Love God, and Love your neighbor. What Jesus is saying is that both of these commandments are necessary. A complete and unconditional love of God must be connected to acts of healing and care we extend to one another. No meaningful love of God is possible without love of neighbor. Like Vivian’s experience in Beirut, both faith and service are required.
Now you and I know Jesus’s Great Commandment and we follow it. We love God. We praise God’s name. We worship together in this parish community. We love our neighbors. We provide for our families, treasure our friends, and try to live in peace with everyone. But what makes Jesus’s command difficult is that he does not limit the definition of neighbor to those who are in our closest circle of relationships. Jesus extends the meaning of neighbor to anyone who is in need. Like Vivian’s experience, whoever is wounded becomes a neighbor to us.
Now who are those who are wounded in our world today? Who are in need? We could make a long list of possibilities. But today’s first reading from the book of Exodus makes three suggestions: the widow, the poor, and the alien. The “widow” stands for anyone who is isolated, who is cut off from relationships that support life. A widow could be the man in our neighborhood who just lost his wife after sixty years of marriage. It could be someone you know isolated in a nursing home. The widow is in need, therefore, she is a neighbor. Jesus calls us to love her. The “poor” represents anyone who is struggling to survive. It could be someone who has lost a job, or is unable to pay a mortgage because of Covid 19. It could be someone compromised by alcohol or drugs. The poor are wounded by life and become our neighbors. Jesus calls us to love them. “Aliens” in the bible are non-Jews who live in Israel. They therefore represent anyone who is different. This certainly includes immigrants who wish to live among us in this country, but it also includes those already in this country, who because of race, background, or religion, do not have full access to the freedoms that we enjoy. The prejudice against them wounds them and makes them our neighbor. Jesus calls us to love them.
It might sound simple when Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbor. But it becomes difficult when we realize that anyone who is wounded is our neighbor. Each time we encounter such a person, we have to do more than say “Thank God for your safety.” We must also find a way to love and to care for them in their need.