SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Ruth 1:1.3-6.14-16.22; Mt 22:34-40 ]
When we read today’s scripture readings, the following questions and doubts would no doubt come to mind. From the gospel reading, we might ask whether it is at all possible for anyone to love the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with his entire mind. In the same vein, can we love our neighbour as ourselves? Is this kind of love narcissistic? And when we turn to the first reading, we cannot but admire Ruth for her decision to follow Naomi, her mother-in-law, back to Israel when she had the opportunity to return to her homeland. After all, most women have difficulty living with their mother-in-law, and she could have blamed Naomi’s family for her misfortune to be widowed at such an early age. Finally, we may ask if such principles or laws of love could ever be observed in reality.
Such questions in my view are ill put. In themselves, they are not wrong, but the foundation or prerequisite for fulfilling these commandments is missing. When we ask the question, how can we live out the commandments, the focus is naturally on ourselves, our human effort in living out the commandments of love. Such an approach will certainly make us self-centered and egoistic. Indeed, it is unfortunate that many Catholics reduce Christian morality to ethics and humanism. When morality is reduced to ethics, then we are simply speaking of the moral imperative in us to do what is right, or simply following some laws based on human reasoning and humanism. Thus, when we try to carry out the laws, we will find ourselves incapable, because the human heart is broken, wounded, egoistic and self-centered.
Hence it is important to recall the basis for Christian morality. The origin and source of Christian morality is founded on the prior love of God for us; not our love for Him, nor our love for our fellowmen. This is the key principle in today’s liturgy and a presupposition in observing the commandments of love.
We uncover this principle when we examine the person of Naomi. In reality, the greatest person in the first reading is not Ruth but Naomi. She symbolizes the unconditional love of God in her person. If Ruth had chosen to follow Naomi and could say to her, “Do not press me to leave you and to turn back from your company, for wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God”, it was because Naomi was a powerful example of God’s love. We can hear the selflessness of Noami, for being alone, she would surely have wanted her daughters-in-law to stay and look after her.
Instead, we are told of her magnanimity in urging her daughters-in-law to return to their homeland. She understood that for them, they would have greater security back home with their people than in following her, as she had no means to provide for them since she herself was a widow. The greatness of Naomi is underscored by her insistence that Ruth went back, following the footsteps of the other daughter-in-law, Orpah.
Isn’t Naomi the manifestation of God’s unconditional love and mercy? Naomi put the interests of her daughters-in-law above her own. If she could love in this manner, it must be because she herself had experienced the love of Yahweh in spite of the tragedies she suffered in her family. As a consequence, she could love God with all her heart, soul and mind, her neighbour as herself. Within this context, we can appreciate why Ruth insisted on following Naomi. Having encountered the unconditional love of God in Naomi, she too, could accept the God of Naomi, for she had demonstrated the reality of God’s love in her life and in her faith. Without the example of Naomi and her genuine love, Ruth would never have followed her. In a nutshell, Ruth was transformed by the love of Naomi, just as the latter was transformed by the love of Yahweh.
Ruth therefore symbolizes all of us in our response to God. Only in view of our experience of God’s love can we then make the appropriate response. Of course, we can also follow the example of Orpah. She, too, equally received the love of Naomi, yet she chose to return to her homeland. She was not completely reflective and appreciative of Noami’s love. She cared more for her own interests and security than that of Naomi’s. So in both Ruth and Orpah, we have the symbols of those who respond to God’s love and those who do not.
This same principle has to be applied in today’s gospel as well. When Jesus gave the greatest commandment, He was referring to Deuteronomy. For when Moses spoke these words, it was in the context of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land. Moses taught them the shema in the context of their liberation from Egypt and their sojourn in the desert. The shema could only be understood and lived by those who had encountered and remembered the unconditional love of God for them. Truly, the Israelites were slaves and strangers. They were the outcasts of society. Yet God chose them to be His people unconditionally.
Having experienced such great mercy and gratuity from God, the natural response would be to return that love. So when Moses asked them to love God with all their heart, mind and soul, it was only because God had loved them with His whole being in the first place. Secondly, when Moses exhorted them to love their neighbour as themselves, it was only because they, who were the marginalized of society, had been loved unconditionally. Hence, they should be compassionate and feel with the poor and the strangers in their midst; after all, they would have been in the same predicament if not for God’s love and mercy.
Indeed, the key to living out the commandments of love, not in a legalistic manner but in a way that flows from our being, is when the love of God has transformed us from within. Anyone who is touched by God’s love, loves in a self-forgetful manner, like Mary who visited Elizabeth. God loves us for no reason.
Similarly, true love for others is not dictated by reason and self-interest. Genuine love is when we love for the sake of the person. When we love, we must not be conscious that we love. When we love unconsciously, then we know that that love comes from within and that love is pure because it is flowing out from us.
Only this kind of selfless love can transform people. Truly, if we have reduced our ministry, our various roles and responsibilities in life to mere function and work, that is because we have still not come into a deep contact with God’s love. More often than not, we serve with imperfect motives, more for ourselves than for others and for God. This explains why we are not able to attract people to our faith and share our lifestyle. We are not as attractive as Noami because, unlike her, we are not filled with the love of God. But if we are truly reflective of God’s unconditional love and mercy, we would have converted many to our faith, and drawn many others to join us in our ministry.
Consequently, we must return to the foundation, which is our relationship with God cultivated through prayer. When we pray, it is not simply to meditate on the virtues of Christ, or to try to imitate Him or make our daily examen to see our failures. Of course this analytic dimension of meditation is necessary. But essentially, prayer is to be with God and to allow ourselves to bask in His unconditional love. Only then can we find our true selves and be healed of our brokenness. Only when we have experienced Him, can we then proclaim Him to others.
The hymn “Pass it on” sums it all beautifully. “It only takes a spark to keep a fire going. And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it, you spread his love to everyone, you want to pass it on. I wish for you my friend, this happiness that I’ve found. You can depend on it, it matters not where you’re bound. I’ll shout it from the mountain top, I want the world to know, the Lord of love has come to me, I want to pass it on.“
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone.