A member of my family was in hospital last week. She noted how some people there went out of their way to be kind and understanding, and this was wonderful. But she also noted with sadness others who clearly saw it simply as a job, in which she and her illness were just a nuisance. We meet this everywhere don’t we? People in shops or on the phone at call centres can either make life happier for all of us in all sorts of small ways, or they can make us wish them to hell!
This difference in attitude is surely at the heart of the teaching of Jesus. He constantly criticised people who kept the letter of the law, did all the correct things, but did it without real love and care. So when he sums up the law in our Gospel today, (Matt 22:34-40) we need to note those two little words he adds to the command to love others. He says, “You must love your neighbour AS YOURSELF.” Yes, if we think how we would like to be treated when cared for in hospital, or served in a shop, or on the phone, we are far more likely to behave as a true Christian should.
But this is not always easy is it? Some people are easy to love, but others are just infuriating! So, if we want our love to grow as it should, to cope with these more difficult people, even the people we really can’t stand at all, then we need to look further than our own resources, to look at the other half of this great Commandment, which is “to love the Lord your God.”
Again it’s easy to say that we love God, because we say our prayers and go to Mass, and just leave it at that, a thing on the surface of our lives. So the Commandment adds “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.” Now there’s a challenge! How can I learn to really love God when he seems so distant? The answer is twofold. The first is simply to talk to God as a friend, for the more we do that the more we will come to realise the friendship, the closeness that he offers each one of us if we let him ; to become as St Paul says in our 2nd reading (1 Thess 1:5-10) “servants of the real, living God”, rather than some abstract idea. The second is to recognise that everything we have, everything we do, everything we are, comes from God. It’s only as we know that we are loved, that we can allow that greater love which is God himself, to come to us in this real and living way and flow through us to others. As St John says “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19)
This is one of the reasons why I am glad to see in the new English translation of the Mass that the words the priest says at the offertory (words you don’t always hear when we sing a hymn at that point) stresses that all that we offer to God at Mass is what we have actually already received. The old words were “Through your goodness we have this bread to offer” but the new ones are much more explicit. “Through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you”. Later on I like the one extra word “of” that I say. Not, “Make us an offering” but “Make of us an offering” which stresses much more effectively our desire to let God work in us at the deepest level of our being.
As a priest, I sometimes meet people who say, “I’ve tried to be a good person, and yet God never seems to help me, or reward me for all I’ve done, so what’s the point of being good?” I have great difficulty not being rude to people like this. I want to scream at them “What are you talking about? Everything, EVERYTHING, comes from God!” But I try instead to explain it gently.
The Offertory at Mass, where we bring up the Bread and Wine, and of course our money, is not saying “Look at us God! Aren’t we generous?”. No, it is a giving back to God what he has given us, and the Prayer that follows shows this too. The Priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” and everyone replies “It is right and just”, and this response is not meant just for those few moments of prayer, but is meant to affect the whole of lives. We are meant to take this great thanksgiving at the heart of every Mass out with us into the world so as to live it out in everything we do.
Nobody said being a Christian is easy, but we will get nowhere by trying desperately hard to be good by ourselves. No, what we have to do, endlessly, constantly, is to link ourselves to the source of goodness and love, to open our hearts to God. That is what faith is, not a set of beliefs, but an open heart. And the more we open our heart to God, the more we will be able to open our heart to others. The more we know that we are loved, the more we can love, with all our heart and mind and soul.