Loving God and neighbor

By | October 19, 2011

God’s gift of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites was of immeasurable value. The law enabled them to truly be a people set apart, peculiarly God’s own. It illumined how to relate in justice and love toward both God and neighbor. The challenge was that its application could devolve through human weakness into a legalistic code that lacked compassion. Truth could never be compromised but yet somehow love had to maintain its presence in order to radiate the law’s divine origin.

The reading from Exodus shows how compassion was placed as a boundary on the practical applications of justice. The faithful Jew is reminded that “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body” or “if you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him.” God reminds the people that “I am compassionate” and that “I shall surely hear their cry.”

In the Gospel, Christ points out that the whole law is built on the foundation of love that is rooted first in loving God above all and then from this, one’s neighbor as one’s self. If God is not loved first, something or someone will fill the void. The consequence of this is usually some sort of distortion or deterioration of our relationships with others. These “new first loves” are the “idols” of which St. Paul writes that the Thessalonians turned away from “to serve the living and true God.”

Idols of today are not the little statues or amulets of the past. One definition of an idol that has remained with me is that of a “false ultimate concern.” The love of God and our heavenly salvation would be a true ultimate concern demanding our first attention. A life ordered toward the ultimate concern of getting to heaven remains in proper perspective and is more apt to keep relationships with others rooted in real love and justice.

What are some false ultimate concerns? They can be very subtle. For some it could begin by simply checking a horoscope and having it actually become influential on the choices of our day. It could begin by the good of diligently working to maintain our job for the well-being of our family only to become an obsession at the expense of our family. It could begin as a sport or hobby that brings joy only to slowly take more and more of our time from God, Sunday and our true obligations. Even love for another person can become so paramount that we begin to crowd out and even lose respectful love of self and God. Brooding over past hurts or fearing the future can take on an ultimate concern some days and they too can encroach upon proper trust in God. Idols are sneaky, but in the end, they only have the power we give them.

Questions for reflection

1. What idols do I keep at bay in my life?

2. How does compassion enter my living and sharing of the truth?

Fr. Vander Steeg is pastor of St. Mary Parish, Greenville, and St. Edward Parish, Mackville.

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