"Some consolation", Pierre van Hanselaere (Ghent, 1786–1862), 1825

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on Trinity XIII (6 September)

The commandments are summed up in this sentence, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

With these words, S. Paul echoes Christ in placing love of those around us, along with love of God, as more than some mere optional extra; but rather as the highest aim of our lives — as the fulfilment of the law. There is just one problem with this — we often seem to have very odd ideas about what this love means.

Society presents us with many images of love, and to be fair many of these have significant amounts of truth within them; but for us, the marker of what true love is can only be found in one place — God. Everything which God has done to and for humanity over the centuries has been an act of love — our creation in the very first place, was so that he could love humanity; the giving of the Old Testament law was an act of love to guide the ancient Israelites in their relations with each other and with God; above all, the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, was an act of love. God is pure love, it’s not merely that he is loving, but he is love itself; and so everything which he does is love.

If we look at God’s works, and Christ’s teachings we come across a fuller and better understanding of love than we find presented by society. S. Paul gives us a good start today when he says that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour’ — the essence of loving somebody else begins with doing them no wrong. This expands to give us a basic definition of loving somebody, which is to want them best for them for their own sake. That is, by loving somebody we want them to have everything good; and we do this simply because of the love we have for them. If we want good for other people because of what it will do for us, then that isn’t this complete and God-like love.

Showing love to others will often make us happy, they may well respond in kind and show love back to us — being friends with other people certainly brings happiness to us. But if we are to have God’s love this can’t be why we do it. If we are to have God’s love, then we should do good to others even when we know that they won’t or can’t return that good to us. So often the Church exhorts us to do good to the poorest, the weakest, the most vulnerable — this is because they are those who are unable to give us anything in return.

But wanting the best for others isn’t always easy. It can make hard demands on us, and we are given a particular example of that in today’s Gospel. We hear Christ talking about a brother, that is somebody close to us, somebody we should be loving, who sins against us. What he says to us is more than a little bit challenging. We are told that we should confront this brother. At first we might look at this and think that this conflicts with the repeated instructions not to be judgmental — but the important point is love, this has to be the motivation. The love which wants the best for others, includes wanting the best for this sinning brother.

In confronting them we shouldn’t be trying to be harsh, we shouldn’t be judgmental — if we do this rightly, then we are showing love. We are calling them back to that place where they will be better off, where they will be in a right relationship with God and with those around them. This is one of the hardest demands which love makes of us. It is only if we look at it from the perspective of God’s love that it makes sense — if somebody is straying severely, then they are damaging themselves and their relationship with God (which is the very best thing to have); we cannot love somebody in that position and not want them to turn back and restore that relationship with God.

How can we do this? It’s very difficult, to say the least. As humans we do find it almost impossible to do good things without allowing our own sinful tendencies to creep in — to call somebody back from sin without being judgmental requires a strong purity of mind. Something which we cannot manage by ourselves.

We need to remember that God is the source of love, we love because he loved us first. The love we try to show to those around us is God’s love. He gives us the example, certainly — but he also gives us the strength to show that love, and the guidance to know when and how to do so. It is only by union with God that we can hope to begin to show love to others. Above all, by reflecting on Christ’s example of love — the way that he reached out lovingly to all around him, including when he spoke harsh words to those who needed to be roused from their sinful misguided ways. Finally, by uniting ourselves to that place where God’s love was shown more fully than anywhere else — on the Cross, where Christ offered his life out of nothing more than love for every single human.

Make no mistake: love really does hurt, it really is difficult — but it is the place where we become most united to God. Let us ask him for the strength to show his love to all of those around us.