21 May 2017

Conditional Love?

Jesus said to his disciples: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14,15). And we thought God’s love is unconditional. Jesus loves us no matter who we are or what we do – or so we think.

Here’s another statement from Jesus in Luke 9,23: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.” And in John 15,14: “You are my friends, if you do what I command.”

In Mathew 7,21, He says: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.” In the parable of the last judgment in Mathew 25, the requirement He set for entering the kingdom couldn’t be any clearer (He even said it twice): “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Does it mean therefore that God’s love is conditional after all? That He will only love us if we are holy, obedient, and kind? This feels disappointing but somehow not totally unexpected. We have gotten so used to the conditions set by our personal and institutional relationships.

Some parents think that if they love their children they should buy what they want. Some boyfriends demand from their girlfriends: “If you love me you have to give me what I desire.” The President promises a country freed from drugs but then expects people not to complain about the killings in the war on drugs. China gives our government millions in aid and loans in exchange for our silence when they grab parts of our territory for their own. Even some of our religious devotions are treated like some sort of transaction: “Please grant my petition, Lord, and I promise to go to Church for nine days of novena and Masses.”

Not so the love of the Lord. But we need to understand first what His unconditional love means.

1.     God's love sets us free. St. Paul teaches in Romans 5,8: “God proves His love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.” Even when we don’t know it yet, even when we were dead in sin, even when we couldn’t forgive ourselves, God loves us. Jesus makes this point clear when He seeks out public sinners and social outcasts in His public ministry, not to enable or patronize them, but to set them free from their bondage to sin. When he told the story of the father who accepted his prodigal son without question and ordered a feast to be celebrated for the son who was dead and has come back to life, Jesus describes the love of the Father to His children, a love that sets His children free.

2.     God’s love sustains us. When Jesus preaches about the good news of God’s love, His most frequent message is this: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1,15). God paves the way but we still need to take the step towards conversion so the power of God’s love may bring us to fullness of life. This is a life-long process, and we know from experience that there will be a lot of stumbling and back-sliding. So He sends us His Spirit of Truth to set us in the right direction and sustain us in the way. In John 14,18, Jesus promised His disciples: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

3.     God’s love brings perfection. After the episode of the rich young man who inquired about getting into heaven and the impossibly high requirement for it, the disciples of Jesus cried in frustration, “who then can be saved?” To which Jesus replied: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19,26). When we have done our part and still fall short of God’s perfection, know that it is not our human striving alone that will save us. God’s love is grace which brings perfection to our imperfect efforts and fulfillment to the limits of our strength. St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 2,8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”

God’s love is all of these: our starting point, what sustains us in the journey, and the ultimate reward. But we have to take the journey itself and respond to God's love, for unrequited love will not bring salvation. Knowing that God accepts us no matter what is but a foretaste of the infinite grace He offers. Even His commandments are an expression of His love, for they lead to fullness of life. Thus obeying them is not a divine condition but a human response to love. For God is not interested in a transactional relationship where terms and conditions apply. Rather, He "wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth" (1 Tim 2,4).

1 John 4,19 sums it up: “We love because He first loved us.”

HOMILY for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

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