First Comes Love
by Alfred McBride, O.Praem
Tevye's song in Fiddler on the Roof is a human version of what the Bible means by covenant. To his busy wife he sings, "Do you love me?" Brusquely she recites all her wifely and motherly duties as proof of her love, "So you ask me, 'Do I love you?"' Tevye persists, "I know, darling, but do you love me?" Golda shrugs and responds, "I suppose I do." A contented Tevye relaxes, "It's nice to know." Love comes first, then the evidence of love.
Biblical morality does not begin with the commandments. It starts with the covenant at Sinai, after which the commandments are given. God gives Israel his love and invites a surrender of love in return. Jesus repeated and completed this covenant of love in a new and perfect manner on the hill of Calvary and in the garden of the Resurrection. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are God's teachings on how to stay in love with Him.
Chapter One of Veritatis Splendor is a meditation on the dialogue between Jesus and a rich young man (see Mt 19:16-22). This meditation has three points that apply to the moral life: (1) covenant, (2) commandments, (3) following Jesus.
Briefly, this is what happened in the story. A rich young man asks Jesus, "What good must I do to attain eternal life?" Jesus gives two replies. First, he talks about goodness. Second, he says, "Keep the commandments." The young man says, "I have always kept them. What do I still lack?" Jesus tells him, "If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have and come follow me."
The young man wisely sensed the connection between each good act here and its eternal consequences. Jesus ties his remark about goodness to communion with God, who alone is good. "To ask about the good... means to turn toward God. Jesus shows that the young man's question is really a religious question. The goodness that attracts and obliges man has its source in God.... Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundation" (No. 9).
Today's society teaches us how to be moral without being religious. It is obviously not working. Jesus says religion is the basis of morality. By religion, he means a covenant rock on which commandments and beatitudes are built. Morality without covenant is a house built on sand. Covenant without morality is a travesty of religion.
Covenant implies love, promise keeping, and surrender. At Sinai, God told Israel how he lifted her up on eagles' wings and brought her to freedom from slavery. He basically said, "See how much I love you?" God had kept his promises, loved Israel, and invited love in return. Through Moses, Israel returned her love, promised fidelity, and surrendered to God. That's covenant.
From the human side, covenant communion is often broken by infidelity and sin. God, however, always remains a faithful lover and offers forgiveness and the invitation to return and start again. Because of this the moral life is possible. God does not love us because we are good. We are good because God loves us.
Jesus perfected the divine covenant in his death and resurrection. The difference between Sinai and Calvary is that now we all have the Holy Spirit to seal our covenant with God and have divine power to stay moral. Through the Spirit, the risen Jesus is our moral teacher.
"People today need to turn to Christ once again to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil. Christ is the teacher, the Risen One who has life in himself and who is always present in his Church and in the world. It is he who opens up to the faithful the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father's will, teaches the truth about moral action" (No. 8).
Communion with God creates self-understanding. The shelves of bookstores bulge with hundreds of self-help books. People hunger to know about themselves and how to be happy. These books provide immediate, partial, and often superficial standards of self-knowledge. The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly must ... with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness ... draw near to Christ" (No. 8). Jesus reveals to us who we really are and how to be happy and moral.
All quoted matter is from Veritatis Splendor—Living the Good Life, Pope John Paul II's encyclical regarding certain fundamental questions of the Church’s moral theology. Articles by Fr. McBride in the coming months will study the encyclical.
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