At that time Jesus was filled with joy by the Holy Spirit and said, “Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned. Yes, Father, this was how you were pleased to have it happen.” Luke 10: 21
There’s no IQ test to get into heaven. Most of those called by Jesus weren’t learned. In fact, Jesus seemed to have the most run-ins with the religious experts of his day.
While being familiar with scripture and the tenets of our faith is a good thing, it’s easy to confuse knowing it intellectually and living it. Jesus said the most important commandments are to love God, others, and ourselves. A superior intellect isn’t needed to live a life of love.
God invites us all to participate in his heavenly banquet. In the parable of the great feast, when the invited guests chose not to attend, the king invited the sick, the disabled, and anyone else his servants came across on the highways and byways. (Matthew 22: 1-14) These guests weren’t given an entrance exam. All they had to do was accept the invitation and respond accordingly.
We respond accordingly to God’s invitation by treating our host, ourselves, and all other guests with respect and love. If we have intelligence or any other gift, let’s use them, by all means—not to build up our own egos, but to help us love.
Prayer: Lord, teach my heart the wisdom of love.
Reflection: How can your abilities help you reach out to others in love?
Tell them not to speak evil of anyone, but to be peaceful and friendly, and always to show a gentle attitude toward everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, and wrong. Titus 3: 2-3a
It’s so hard to keep from judging others. People do some stupid, infuriating, hurtful things. So how do we begin?
We might start by admitting that if we’re looking at others’ failings, it doesn’t mean we don’t have any ourselves; it just means we aren’t paying attention to them. So when we find ourselves looking down on others, it might help to call to mind the times we’ve done thoughtless, hurtful things. In fact, the things that annoy us most about others are often the very traits we have ourselves. You spot it, you got it, as they say.
We don’t have to beat ourselves up over the poor choices we’ve made. We can be honest about them and still offer ourselves some compassion. Prostitutes and tax collectors flocked to Jesus. He welcomed those who were well-aware of their own shortcomings. We tend to be open and receptive to those who are friendly and welcoming.
When we ease up on ourselves, we naturally ease up on others, too. We’re all in this together. Only One is perfect and he offered himself for us and for those we look down on.
Prayer: Lord, help me see myself and others with eyes of compassion.
Reflection: Who do you look down on? What do you have in common with them?
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing. 1 John 1: 8-9
Where did some of us get the idea we have to be perfect to earn God’s love? Why do we think we have to cover up our imperfections to be acceptable? The Bible’s filled with stories of God’s love and faithfulness—in spite of our sins. We turn our backs on God, not the other way around.
God knows our weaknesses better than we do and loves us anyway. What else is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son about? Or the parable commending the tax collector who acknowledged his sins, trusting God’s mercy, as opposed to the religious official whose prayer to God was a spiritual resume? Or Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross to do what we could never do for ourselves—perfectly obey our Creator? As St. Paul said, if we could put ourselves right with God by keeping the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2: 21)
Covering up our flaws is the world’s way, not God’s. Denying our wrongs, blaming others, creating excuses, that’s the way of the world. Trying to look good on the outside when we know the truth on the inside creates tension. No wonder the psalmist said his sins filled him with anxiety.
It doesn’t feel safe to be honest about our liabilities in the dog-eat-dog world. On the other hand, it‘s a relief to be honest about our faults with God and with ourselves. Surely we can find at least one trusted human being we can trust to understand and to keep our sharing in confidence. It’s fundamental to recovery for countless people in Twelve Step programs. The Catholic Church has wisely recognized it as a means of obtaining God’s grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It does our hearts good to come clean in a safe atmosphere, and what atmosphere could be safer than God’s welcoming arms?
Prayer: Lord, I trust in your mercy and love.
Reflection: What secrets are creating tension within you? How can you find a safe and trustworthy way to unburden yourself?
As Jesus sat near the Temple treasury, he watched the people as they dropped in their money. Many rich people dropped in a lot of money; then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a penny. He called his disciples together and said to them, “I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had—she gave all she had to live on.” Mark 12: 41-44
While Jesus was eating, a woman came in with an alabaster jar full of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head. Some of the people there became angry and said to one another, “What was the use of wasting the perfume? It could have been sold for more than three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor!” And they criticized her harshly.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! …She has done a fine and beautiful thing for me…She did what she could…” Mark 14: 3-6
One way or the other, money really is no object. At least, that’s how it seems according to these gospel stories. The widow gave what she had. Her gift of a penny was more than enough, and valued by Jesus. The woman who anointed Jesus gave what she had, too. Her expensive gift was not rejected as extravagant, but also valued by Jesus.
In God’s economy, it’s not about how much or how little we have to give, but the love and sincerity behind the gift that counts. This applies to more than material gifts. What about the abilities and talents we’ve been gifted with? We don’t need to worry that what we have to share isn’t good enough. We don’t need to worry that we’d be showing off by putting our talents to use. When we are offering ourselves and our abilities to God, we don’t need to worry about other people’s opinions or comments. We don’t even have to worry about the results. Neither the widow’s penny nor the lavish perfume made a huge difference in the worldly scheme of things, but both were precious and appreciated by the Lord.
Every time we overcome shyness, or feelings of inadequacy, or fear that people will think we’re trying to show off in order to share what we’ve been given, we are doing “a fine and beautiful thing.”
Prayer: Lord, help me recognize my gifts and share them.
Reflection: What are your gifts? Who can you share them with today?
What does an obedience have to do with loving God?
Does God give us obedient hearts so that we’ll obey his command to love him? Or do we love him out of gratitude for the gift of obedient hearts that protect us from our own self-destructive tendencies? Either way, in God’s kingdom, it seems that love and obedience go together.
The NAB translation of the above passage makes the connection clearer. Rather than “give” us obedient hearts, it says that God “will circumcise” our hearts. Physical circumcision removes a covering and exposes a very sensitive area. The procedure involves some pain. Thinking spiritually, you can imagine that a circumcised heart would be more open and sensitive than a heart covered over and protected. Circumcision of our hearts involves some pain, too, as self-will and self-centeredness are removed. When our hearts are vulnerable and exposed, we become more open and responsive to God, who loves us and has our best interests at heart.
We obey because we love and we love because we obey.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to your love.
Reflection: What keeps you from obeying God? If you were going to respond to God’s love today, what would you do differently?
Do all your work in love. 1 Corinthians 16: 14
“Do all your work in love.” Simple, but challenging.
“God, what does success look like to you in this situation?” I don’t know where I first read this phrase, but I put it on my refrigerator, next to pictures of my grandkids. I see it when I’m tooling around the kitchen and every time I do, it brings me back to what I believe is the reason all of us were put on this planet: love. Jesus told us the most important commandments were to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves. Do we really have something better to do than what God wants us to do? It sure seems like it, most of the time.
I went to my first writers’ conference some years ago, eager to pitch my first book proposal. The conference set up author/publisher five minute pitch appointments. It was a bit like speed-dating. Publishers sat stations in the middle of a huge room all afternoon as a never-ending flow of budding authors streamed past them. I was so nervous I could barely concentrate. Then a God-thought occurred to me: I’m not here to get a book contract. I’m here to love. The room was hot. The editor sitting across from me had beads of sweat on her forehead. I wondered if it would be rude or against protocol to offer tissues to a sweating editor. I decided to treat her the way I’d want to be treated. I pulled out a pack of tissues from my purse and offered them to her. She smiled the first genuine smile I’d seen all afternoon. I felt less nervous. We were just two human beings in a hot auditorium together. Doing my work in love felt good. That editor didn’t offer me a book contract, but I think I was a success that day from God’s point of view.
Prayer: Lord, live your love through me today.
Reflection: How can you manifest love in whatever you do today?
…Submit to God and accept the word that he plants in your hearts, which is able to save you. James 1: 21b
God plants his word—not in our heads, not in our hands, but in our hearts.
Accepting the word of God isn’t an intellectual exercise. Jesus praised his Father for showing the unlearned what he hid from the learned. (Luke 10: 21)
It isn’t just about what we do, either. Jesus warned against praying, fasting, or helping the needy to gain approval or admiration. (Matthew 6: 1-17)
That could be why Jesus said the most important commandments were to love God with all our being and love our neighbors and ourselves. Living our faith goes much deeper than our heads and our hands, it goes to our hearts. We’re not equipped to go deep enough to change the kernel of our hearts on our own. Only God can get in there and do the deep surgery needed to bring about a change of heart.
What we can do is be open to the word God wants to plant in our hearts and nurture it. We can take actions that encourage spiritual growth. Honest prayer opens our hearts to God, He can heal what needs to be healed in us when we stop covering it up. Connecting with other people who are growing spiritually inspires us to desire a genuine change of heart. Serving others can soften our hearts to the needs of those around us and allow God an easier entrance.
We can come to God just as we are, warts and all, and accept his unconditional love for us. We can welcome the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us to save us from our self-defeating faults. We can give our hearts back to Him.
Prayer: Lord, I open my heart to your healing love.
Reflection: What word of love is God planting in your heart today?
…I am sending [Onesimus] back to you now, and with him goes my heart. Philemon 12
Because of Paul’s deep affection for Onesimus, his spiritual son, it wasn’t easy for him to say good-bye. Paul sent the runaway slave back because it was in Onesimus’ best interest. Returning home created the opportunity to heal the relationship with Philemon, whom he had abandoned.
Love is a choice to act in another’s best interests. That can mean letting them go when we’d rather keep them close to us. A mother sending her child off on the first day of kindergarten or the first semester at college could also say, “…and with him (or her) goes my heart.”
Clinging to other adults and trying to keep them under our protection isn’t love; it’s self-centered co-dependency. We stunt our loved ones’ growth and do them a disservice when we micro-manage. We deny them the opportunity to develop and grow. God gave them free will. Who are we to take it away? That doesn’t mean we can’t offer suggestions, but we leave the decisions, and the outcomes, in the other person’s hands.
When we love someone we encourage them to think things through on their own, gather information, pray, and seek sound advice from reliable sources. We don’t try to control them. Risky? Maybe. Hard to let go? No doubt. The healthy and loving thing to do? Absolutely. Our hearts can go with them as long as we leave our hands off.
Prayer: Loving God, help me remember you love my loved ones even more than I do.
Reflection: Where do you need to let go?
Although destruction of sinners might conjure up harsh images, it reminds me of an Abraham Lincoln quote. When told he should destroy his enemies instead of trying to befriend them, Lincoln asked, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
It would seem that God’s amazing plan for destroying sinners is to offer them his mercy. We’re told that God is love, a love demonstrated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. He lavished unconditional love on us by his willingness to suffer and die for us. He lavished forgiveness on the enemies who mocked, abused, and crucified him.
God chooses to destroy sinners—and we’re all sinners—by forgiving us and welcoming us back into the loving relationship broken by sin. But God is a lover who respects the free will he gave us. He won’t force his will on us. He leaves us free to accept or reject his invitation, an invitation that involves dying to self and rising to new life in him. The choice is up to us.
Prayer: Lord, lead me away from the self-destructive choices that keep me from your love.
Reflection: What in you needs to be destroyed by God’s unconditional love?
How can growing in love make us stronger? When we care deeply about others, we become willing to move out of our comfort zones. From the Civil Rights movement to Mother Teresa’s work with the poor, compassion motivates people to risk taking action on behalf of others. We can find plenty of examples closer to home.
When a loved one’s welfare is on the line, even those of us who don’t like confrontation find the strength to rise to the occasion. We might question a doctor or hospital staff on behalf of a family member. We might risk our teenager’s displeasure when an unpopular decision has their best interest at heart. During an argument, we might even have the strength to remain silent until cooler heads prevail instead of lashing out in the heat of the moment.
If we consistently give in to others’ wants or demands we’re probably acting out of fear of rejection rather than love. Love shifts our focus and empowers us to act in the best interests of those we care about. Genuine love calls us to act for our loved ones’ good—whether they like it or not, whether we like it or not. That takes the strength of perfect love that casts out fear.
Prayer: Lord, expand my heart to love others more and more.
Reflection: How are you being called to grow in love today? How can God’s love strengthen you?