We Begin Our Eternity Now
October 27, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Exodus 22:20-26) Reading II (1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10)
Gospel (St. Matthew 22:34-40)
In the Gospel reading this morning, Our Lord is tested by one of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, you recall, are the legalists, the ones who lived according to the law – but just simply according to the law. And so they come to Jesus to ask what is the greatest of all the commandments. There were 613 laws that the Jews had to follow. If you look in the Pentateuch, you will find 613 specific precepts. So it is not just the Ten Commandments that he was asking about, but which of these 613 precepts is the greatest. Jesus, knowing what was in their hearts, and also, of course, knowing the truth, was able to say, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now this undercuts what the Pharisees were all about. Recall another day when Our Lord was speaking to the Pharisees and He condemned them for binding up heavy loads to put on other people’s shoulders and then not lifting a finger to help them, to go across land and sea to make a single convert and then, He says, “You make a devil out of him twice as bad as your own self.” He condemns them for closing Heaven so that neither they nor others will be able to enter.
The problem was that they were lacking in charity: They did not have the love of God and the love of neighbor in their heart. They would have said that everything they were doing was being done out of love for God because their whole life was about their faith; it was about religion. Everything revolved around their religion, but it was all about external appearance, it was all about making it look good, it was all about just doing the various things and going through the motions.
It is very easy for Catholics to be Pharisaical as well because there are lots of laws and regulations within our Church. It would be easy to show up for Mass on Sunday and say, “Well, I did what I had to do. I came to Mass, good enough.” Or, “It is a holy day so we have to go.” Or, “I guess I have to go to Confession because the Church says that I have to go to Confession.” You can go through the motions without any love, and it would be very easy to do that. But that is not what God is requiring. He requires that we do the right thing for the right reason – and the right reason in all things is love.
To love God and to love our neighbor is something that requires a great deal of us. It does not require just giving a little bit of time and going through the external motions. It does not mean simply getting up on Sunday morning and dragging ourselves to Mass so we can say that we did it, that we were there. “I hope God’s happy now because I showed up and did what I needed to do.” That is not going to make God in the least bit pleased. But if that is the attitude we have, it may earn condemnation for us. We need to look at what is in the heart. That is what God is interested in. Recall that Our Lord spoke about judgment at another point and He said, “Man looks to the appearance, but God looks to the heart.” So it is not about external appearances. It is not about impressing anyone, because God is not going to be impressed. It is about seeking to love God and to love neighbor.
Now we have spoken many times about what that means. Love is self-sacrificing. Love is seeking the good of another. Love is dying to self. Love is placing yourself at the service of others. Love is about giving. Love is not selfish. If there is anything we are doing that is selfish, in that area we are not loving because we are focused on the self, not focused on the good of God and the good of those around us. And so the call for each one of us is to love.
For those who are married, I need not remind you that you have made a vow, and that vow is to love that one other person every moment of every day for the rest of your life. That means to seek to serve that other person, to give, to pour yourself out, to build the other one up, to totally spend your entire life for the sake of that one other person – and then, of course, the children that follow from that relationship. That is what you have vowed, and it is a vow to Almighty God and a vow to that other person. I remind you, as I have before, that you did not make a vow to say, “As long as I feel like you’re meeting my needs then I’ll take care of yours. As long as I feel good then I will love you. As long as I think you’re doing your part then I’ll do my part.” That is not what you made a vow to do. You made a vow stating clearly that you will love this other person unconditionally – whether you are being loved in return or not – every day for the rest of your life. That is what God is going to hold you responsible for.
You did not make that vow to anyone else. And that is because this one person, for most days, is going to be more difficult to love than anybody else in the entire world, because you have to live with that other person. You have to tolerate that other person with all their foibles and weaknesses and difficulties and struggles, and they are right in the same house and they are of the opposite sex from you and they will drive you right up the wall some days. You have to love them anyway. That is what God is requiring and that is not easy, which is why God requires a vow rather than good feelings or emotions or anything else.
Now from that relationship one begins to learn how to love, not only this one person, but all the others around us. And so it is, again, to seek the good of those around us – beginning with your spouse, then your children, the people God has entrusted to your care. That is your state in life, and first and foremost that is what you will be held responsible for. At the same time, God is going to require charity beyond the immediate family. He will bring into our lives people who are in need in various ways. We are asked also to spend our lives in their service, to be willing to listen to people who are in trouble and need an ear to listen to them or a shoulder to lean upon, to perhaps help people out financially if they are in dire straits, to lift our fingers to be able to help them when they are in some kind of necessity and they need help, to be willing to give of ourselves so that other people will be able to be built up. This is not easy for us to do because our selfishness gets in the way so often. We can see the needs that people have but our heart remains unmoved. And so the Lord is asking each one of us to open the heart, to allow the love of God to fill the heart, and to allow that love to be returned to God and flow out to those around us.
If we are going to be able to love the way that God requires of us, we see [examples] in the first reading: making sure that we are not oppressing the poor, making sure that we are seeking the good of others, all those points that the Lord made about taking care of widows and orphans. In the ancient society, that was how the morality and the quality of a society was determined: by how they took care of widows and orphans. We can ask ourselves the same thing. Are we caring for the people around us? Are we helping those in need?
But we need to make sure that the priorities are right, that we are seeking to love God first, that we are putting Him above all else. If our priorities are right, God is the number one priority – which is not what our society tells us. “Looking out for Number One” in America means “me” not God, and it does not mean “you” it means “me”. So it is not love of God and love of neighbor; it is love of “me” and it is all about “me” and everything revolves around “me”. It’s “what I want” and “what I desire” and “what I feel like” and it is not about “pouring myself out.” It is about “you taking care of me.”
That is not what love is about, but that is exactly the opposite of what Saint Paul is getting at when he tells the people that “everybody knows about how you turned from idols to the living God.” In this society, we have turned from the living God to idols – and the biggest idol is the self! We do not need to be worshiping statues and amulets and false gods of any variety because we have the biggest false god right here – it is ourself! Our whole society says, “Look out for the self!” We have turned, in this society, from the living God to the worship of the number one idol. And the devil is enjoying every bit of it because he knows if that is what we are going to spend our life doing here, it is what we will spend our eternity doing. And there is only one place where we are going to spend eternity worshiping the self, and that is with him who worships himself for all eternity.
Our goal is to spend eternity loving God and loving neighbor. If that is the case, it needs to begin now. So we need to put God first and we need to be opening the heart to God. We need to make sure that when we are at Mass that we are here for the right reason and we are pouring ourselves into it, that we are uniting ourselves with the sacrifice of Christ, offering our sufferings with Christ in union with Him and in union with His sacrifice to the Father, offering ourselves for others, praying for others, suffering for others, sacrificing for others, putting ourselves out. That is what is being asked. And I have told you many times that if we are called to tithe 10% to God that includes not just our money – because He does not care about our money (what He cares about is that we are not hoarding it for ourselves) but He wants you. He wants 10% of your time spent in prayer. I remind you that is about 2½ hours a day, given a 24 hour day. And so we can ask ourselves: How much time are we really spending for God? How much time are we pouring out in charity? How much are we giving of ourselves as opposed to how much are we seeking ourselves? These are things that we need to look at. If we are going to be loving God, we need to be putting Him first, we need to be seeking to live according to His way. Not just so we can go through the motions and say externally that we did it and we made it look good, but truly from the heart putting God first and seeking to love Him so that flowing from that we will be able to love the people around us. That is what Our Lord is going to ask of us and require of us.
If we just think about those two dichotomies that I mentioned earlier, Heaven is about loving God and loving neighbor. Everyone in Heaven will be united to Jesus Christ, will be focused on God and will be loving God to the fullness of their ability and be loved by Him to the fullness of their ability. And because everyone is united in Christ, everyone is going to be loving one another and everyone is going to be interested in the good of the other, trying to lift the other up, trying to help the other to love God even more, to seek the good of the other, to rejoice in the good of the other, to be praising God that all of these other people are there and they are loving God to the fullness of their ability as well. Everybody is seeking, not themselves, but the good of one another, knowing that the others are seeking their good and they do not have to.
Or we can look at hell where everybody seeks themselves. Nobody is interested in the good of another but only of themselves. They will step on one another, and while you are stepping on somebody else, someone else is stepping on you. So nobody gets ahead; nobody gains anything. Everybody drags one another down even further. And everybody is interested only in making sure that they get what they want – which never happens – at the detriment of everyone else – which does happen. It is a total downward spiral rather than being lifted up.
We begin our eternity now. Our eternity began on the day we were baptized, when the virtue of faith, as well as hope and charity, were infused into our souls. We need to practice for eternity now. Our society tells us to practice for hell, to practice by looking out for ourselves, to focus on the self, to be self-seeking, comfort-seeking, pleasure-seeking, making sure that “everything I want is what I get.” We are preparing ourselves for an eternity of selfishness. The Lord calls us to prepare for eternity in Heaven, to love God and to love neighbor here so that we will be able to love God and love neighbor for all eternity. The seeds that we sow in this life are going to bear fruit in eternal life.
Our Lord told us that where our treasure is there our heart will be also. And so we need to ask ourselves very seriously: Where are our priorities? Are they on the self, seeking Number One, looking out only for ourself? Or are we living according to the greatest commandments in the law: to love God with our whole heart and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourself?
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.