When I say the word, “love”, what comes to your mind?
Do you imagine two lovers running hand in hand through a meadow of wildflowers?
Do you think of a man and a woman gazing affectionately into one another’s eyes over a candlelight dinner?
Do you imagine a mother cuddling her infant son?
Whatever came to mind when you heard me say the word “love”, chances are that you did not think of rules or obedience. When we talk about love in today’s world, we think primarily about emotion, romance and affection. We do not associate it with keeping rules, following orders or bowing to authority.
How strange it is, then, for us to hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” How can anyone, even Jesus, command us to love Him? What does obedience to commandments have to do with love?
I think we can understand Jesus’ words by looking at some examples we can all relate to.
Every country has rules against parental neglect. If a mother or father fail to adequately feed, clothe and shelter their children, then they will have those children taken away from them and they will be put in jail.
However, do parents feed their children out of fear that, if they don’t, they will be put in jail? Do parents clothe their children because they think that, if they don’t, the state will come in and punish them? No. Parents feed their children because they love them. They make sure their sons and daughters have a safe place to live and warm, clean clothing because they want them to grow up to be happy and healthy. Good parents follow the law not out of fear of punishment because out of love for their children. In fact, they would continue to provide for their children even if there were no laws requiring it.
The same is also true in our friendships. While there are laws against stealing, I do not take things out of my friend’s house because I am afraid of going to jail. Rather, if I truly love my friend, I will not want to hurt her by taking things away from her. In fact, I would be more likely to give her gifts than steal from her. So, while there are laws against stealing, a good person will respect her friend’s property out of love for her. Even if there were no laws against stealing, friends would still be more likely to give gifts to each other rather than to take their possessions from each other.
When we truly love others, we will never want to hurt them. Chances are, we will go out of our way to avoid any behavior or words that would cause them pain. And when we do hurt those we love, we make a point of apologizing and doing whatever we can to repair the harm we have done.
The same is true in our relationship with Jesus. If we truly love Jesus, we will do everything we can to avoid offending Him by sinning. Once we take to heart how much He has loved us - enough to die for us - we will want to show our gratitude by keeping His word. And just as I would not hurt my friend’s friend out of love for him, just so I will love my neighbor out of love for Jesus. As Saint John tells us in his first letter, “Anyone who says He loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar” (1 Jn 4:20).
Let us look at another example. All of us are commanded by God to come to Mass every Sunday. Many of us do so because of a sense of obligation either to the rules of the Church or to our parents who make us come. However, what would be the attitude of the person who comes to Mass because she loves Jesus? Wouldn’t she listen intently to God’s word knowing that Jesus was speaking to her? Wouldn’t she greet the other people in church with a big smile and a warm handshake knowing that Christ was present in them? And wouldn’t she receive communion with anticipation and joy knowing that it was Jesus Himself whom she was welcoming into her heart? Such a person would be keeping the commandment to attend Mass every Sunday, but instead of doing it out of duty would be doing it out of love. Chances are, even if there were not a commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day, such a person would still come to Mass every Sunday - even every day - out of love for Jesus.
If we love Jesus, we will keep His commandments. One who loves obeys the law with joy. In fact, one who loves goes beyond what the rules demand. This is the kind of love that Jesus showed us by dying on the cross. This is the same love that God expects of us. It is the gift He offers us at every Mass. When we receive the Eucharist with faith, God puts His love into our hearts. Let us ask Him for that gift - for a love that will transform us. Then we will do great things in joyful response to the God who has so loved us.