John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The 14th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke challenges many Catholics. We entertain a picture of “Jesus, meek and mild,” one’s ideal neighbor, and yet he announces that one is incapable of following him “without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life.”
“Hating” is a pretty tough word. Woke neighborhoods have lawn sides declaring “Hate has no place here.” And so many woke policies proclaim that they are opposed to “hate” and “phobia” of all kinds, embracing the “inclusive” and “diverse.”
Jesus wants to make one thing clear: the absolute primacy of the disciple’s relationship to God. Nothing trumps that relationship. Nothing can get in its way. Not even the closest human relationships—parental, spousal, filial, sibling—can claim the place that belongs to God in our lives.
Obviously, if none of these most basic human relationships—relationships that exist prior to and independent of the state—can displace the claim of God, then certainly Caesar’s claim is also relativized. That’s not to be naïve: Caesar’s police power, his ability to coerce, is formidable, but “I pledge allegiance” first and foremost to God.
It’s not that our relationship is just the most important or the greatest love. Our relationship to God is qualitatively different because it measures every other relationship. It is the yardstick, the canon, by which the truth and goodness – and, therefore, the love – of those other relationships is measured.
An old saying captured this truth: “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
The woke of our world would tell us that Christians must “love” whatever their neighbors choose to do. Christians must pretend that not “judging” others means being incapable of (or, at least mute about) behavior. “Love is love,” we’re assured, with a jaundiced eye that Christians who do not subscribe to treating that phrase as a superficial slogan are less-than-Christian.
Jesus has told us otherwise.
Our relationship to God does not suspend moral judgment, when Jesus himself announces that “I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17). Indeed, we should not forget that the Ten Commandments itself was given in the context of a Personal relationship. God does not simply say, “Hey, Moses, here are my 10 arbitrary rules that I’m imposing on you today (and which Jesus may someday waive as suggestions).”
The Ten Commandments were given as part of a personal covenant: “You will be my People; I will be Your God.” Covenants create relationships, and their terms specify on what those relationships are built. In the case of God, that relationship is built on love, because “God is Love” (1 John 4:16). The Ten Commandments tell us what Love requires: the primacy of the true God, truth, fidelity, life, obedience. These are not arbitrary “rules” dictated by God. They are qualities of what love is, so that if we are to have something in common with God (for love presupposes a common good) this is what that commonality entails. God is infinite; we are not. God is almighty; we are not. God is omniscient; we are not. God is all-good: and we, in our creaturely way, can also be good. But good has a shape, contours and qualities.
Chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel reminds us that our relationship with God—built on true love—measures everything else and, sometimes, it means saying that other relationships where we expect “love” to be may not measure up.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, who taught us something about love when he volunteered to be starved to death in lieu of another prisoner in Auschwitz, used to explain the essence of spirituality as “V = v.” “V” stands for voluntas, “will.” When big V—God’s Will—and little v—my will—are in alignment, things are OK. When they are not, Houston, we have problems. Jesus taught us how to pray, and in that prayer he instructed us to say, “Thy will be done.” How often do we actually mean, “my will be done?”
And that leads to a second theme in Luke 14: poverty. “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”
Most of man’s possessions are fickle: they are in our hands for a limited span, as the Psalmist puts it, “for seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong” (Psalm 90:10). As the saying puts it, “you can’t take it with you.” We saw that last April at Notre-Dame de Paris: in the space of one afternoon, the work and achievement of 860 years could have disappeared.
Material possessions are fleeting, but the most precious possession man has is his will. That is the message of Viktor Frankl in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived four concentration camps, describes how a human being can be stripped of everything but his will. That was the one thing his captors could not take.
In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyła speaks of the will as alteri incommunicabilis. It’s a grand Latin phrase that expresses a basic truth: nobody else can want for me. Nobody else can will for me. I can be subject to great force, fear, or coercion to make me do something, but I – and only I – can choose something.
That is the poverty today’s Gospel speaks of. God, our Creator, gave us free will, and he asks that we freely surrender our will to him. That is our choice and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and damnation. He asks – and, as our Creator, Judge, and God has the right to ask – that we align our will, our choices, with his: “Thy will be done” can only be said with meaning when said freely.
Man can renounce his goods, or they can be taken from him. Man can give up his possessions, or they can be taken away. That is not the fundamental renunciation Luke’s Gospel asks for. The renunciation God wants most is ourselves, our choice to live and be and act and choose as God wants us to live and be and act and choose. We must “lose ourselves.” And it is that choice that can be the hardest.
It can be the hardest, because it leads us back to the First Commandment. There can only be one God in our lives. There can be only one God we love (and by the light of that love, measure all other loves). It can be love of the God “whom we cannot see” (1 John 4:20). Or it can be love of the god we see in the mirror.
All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.