Sunday, October 29, 2017

Love God (Not Your Neighbor) With ALL Your Heart

Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet in the 1968 film.

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 29, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 22: 34-40.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2017]

See if you can figure out where these two quotes come from.  I’ll give you a hint: They’re found in the same well-known story:

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

“Good night, good night!  Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

If, perchance, you don’t’ recognize those two lines, maybe this third one will help: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

That clarifies the matter, I’m sure.

Those, of course, are three short quotes from William Shakespeare’s classic play, Romeo and Juliet.  The play tells the story of “star-crossed lovers” (as Shakespeare calls them) who come from feuding families, but who still manage to fall in love and secretly marry.  Then, to escape from her oppressive parents, who want her to marry someone else, Juliet devises a plan to fake her own death and go off with Romeo.  She does this with the help of the Friar who had married them secretly. 

Most of us know the rest of the story.

Friar Laurence gives Juliet a special potion which makes her appear to be dead.  She’s then put into the family crypt, which is where Friar Laurence and Romeo are supposed to meet her after she wakes up, so that she and Romeo can go away without anyone pursuing them, and live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, however, Romeo never gets the message that’s sent to him explaining the details of the plan.  So when he’s told that Juliet has “died,” he thinks she’s really gone.  He decides at that point that life isn’t worth living without her, so he buys some poison, drinks it, and dies next to her in the crypt.  Juliet then wakes up, realizes what Romeo has done, and decides that she can’t live without him either, so she takes her own life by stabbing herself in the chest with Romeo’s dagger.    

A tragic ending, for sure—although the tragedy did finally stop the feud between the two families.

Too bad they waited so long to reconcile.

Now it’s very clear from the way the story is written: Romeo loved Juliet.  He loved her with all his heart and soul and mind and strength.  And, by the same token, Juliet loved Romeo with all her heart and soul and mind and strength.

AND THAT WAS PRECISELY THEIR PROBLEM!  That’s precisely what was wrong in their relationship!  Which is why in the last line of the play Shakespeare wrote these words: “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Notice that in today’s gospel Jesus makes a distinction—a very clear and a very important distinction—between the way we’re supposed to love God and the way we’re supposed to love other human beings.  They’re not the same!  He says we’re to love God (and only God!) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  We’re NOT supposed to love our neighbor in that way.  And this is true even if the “neighbor” in question happens to be our husband or wife or parent or child or brother or sister or best friend!

According to Jesus, we’re supposed to love our neighbor as we love ourself.  Which is an awful lot, by the way.  To love is to “desire the good” for someone, and most of us “desire the best” for ourselves in this life.  Jesus is simply saying that we need to have that same desire for everyone else on this earth—including our enemies.

Mixing up these two commandments, like Romeo and Juliet did, is a big mistake.  It’s a big mistake because other human beings, even if they are very good, are weak and imperfect sinners: weak and imperfect sinners who will most certainly disappoint us, and hurt us, and at times maybe even abandon us.

And, of course, they will all eventually die.

Only God is always there for us; only God can be counted on never to abandon us, or hurt us, or fail us—or die.  This is why our relationship with him (a relationship that’s nourished by daily prayer and the sacraments) needs to be our number one priority in this life.  You’ve heard me say that before; you’ve also heard Fr. Najim say that many times since he became the pastor of St. Pius last year.

And here’s the very interesting irony: When we do grow in our knowledge and love of God; when we do make the effort every day to love the Lord (and only the Lord!) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, we love other people more, not less!  Love of God doesn’t negate the love of neighbor, it actually increases our love for our neighbor.

As I was preparing this homily the person who came to mind in this regard was St. Maximilian Kolbe—the priest who sacrificed his life to save a condemned prisoner in the concentration camp at Auschwitz during the second World War. 

I’m sure most of us have heard the story before.

It happened near the end of July in 1941, when someone from St. Maximilian’s cellblock escaped from the camp.  As soon as he found out about it, the Nazi commandant decided that 10 other prisoners would be chosen at random and executed, in retaliation for the one who had gotten away.

One of those chosen was Francis Gajowniczek, a married man who had a young family. When he was picked he fell to his knees and begged to be spared—for the sake of his wife and children.  It was then that St. Maximilian stepped forward and volunteered to take his place.

And he did.

Now, if you know anything at all about St. Maximilian Kolbe, you know that he loved Almighty God a lot more than he loved any human being on this earth—including the members of his own family.  But it was precisely that intense love for God that motivated him to demonstrate his love for another human being—a person whom he didn’t even know!—in the most radical way possible: by laying down his life for the man.

“Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

My brothers and sisters, our world today is in desperate need of fewer Romeos and Juliets, and of many more Maximilian Kolbes.  May we be among that number, by living these two great commandments as they are written, as Jesus gave them to us: loving God—and only God—with ALL our heart and soul and mind and strength.