by Fr. Bob Wild.
One Sunday morning as I was reading and praying over the Gospel, I read the following words: "This is my command, that you love one another…" (Jn 15:12).
I was struck in a new way by the word, "command," by the paradox of someone commanding love. If anything goes against our modern sensibilities, surely this does. Certainly love, the free gift of my heart, cannot be commanded.
When I come across difficult or mysterious sayings of Jesus, my faith presumption is that he is right and I don’t understand. I try to remember that I am to be conformed to the Gospel, and not the Gospel conformed to my way of thinking. So I asked the Lord to instruct me about these words.
One way he did this was to lead me to pray very slowly and meditatively the magnificent Psalm 119, which is all about how the commandments of the Lord are life-giving. How beautiful the verses are!
Teach me good sense and knowledge, for I rely on your commandments. I open my mouth, panting eagerly for your commandments. Though distress and anguish grip me, your commandments are my delight.
Maybe this was just an Old Testament notion. Maybe people then had to be commanded because they had a different notion of God and his love for them. But no, Jesus himself often used the strong word, "commandment."
He talked about the commandments of God (Mat. 15:13), about the first and greatest commandment (Mk. 12:30); and in his last discourse he used the word frequently.
This is the command I have been given by my Father (Jn. 10:18). If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love (15:10). And I know that his commands mean eternal life (12:50).
We find it difficult to put "command" and "love" together because we have lost our sense of what it is to be a creature. And because we cannot conceive of taking commands from any human authority, we cannot conceive of taking them from God.
We instinctively see commands as threats to our freedom. But there are some parallels, even in our human existence, which show us how commands can be life-giving.
You are on a passenger ship going across the Atlantic. A terrible storm arises. Orders start booming out over the loudspeaker: "All passengers stay in their cabins. All passengers put on life-preservers." Then finally, "All passengers proceed to life-boats. We are abandoning ship."
In this situation of extreme danger, we follow the captain’s every command. We know that in his commands lies our survival.
But what if instead of saying that, the captain said something like this? "Attention everyone, that is, if you want to pay attention. Sorry to disturb you, but something has come up. If you would like, please proceed to the life boats and abandon ship.
"This is an invitation, not a command. Feel perfectly free to abandon ship or not. Thank you for your attention."
You’d be very confused. You’d wonder whether the situation was serious or not. You might even come to the conclusion that it would be all right to stay on the ship.
The laws of our physical and spiritual nature are much closer to the commands on a sinking ship than they are to invitations. We are "free" to eat or not eat, but if we want to stay alive, we will eat. We are "free" to breathe or not to breathe, but if we want to stay alive, we will breathe.
The laws of our spiritual natures work in the same way, too, though they are less obvious. But even in this life, we cannot truly live without faith and love.
We are "free" not to believe in God or not to love him, but if we would truly live, we will do it.
Our situation is very similar to that of a sinking ship. Factually, it is much more momentous and dangerous. Our eternal destiny is at stake.
Without the commands of Jesus and his Father, we are frightened and wander aimlessly. And we do not realize the precariousness of our situation.
Jesus, as our Lord and God, as our Captain, knows completely the situation we are in. He commands us to love. Yes, we are "free" to love or not, but if we don’t, we will die.
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