Once there was a boy in the 3rd grade named Benjamin Dalton–and he was having the worst day of his life. He loved school, and was a good student–but on this particular morning something terrible had happened, something he would never be able to live down, something he was certain would ruin him forever. You see, Benjamin had wet his pants. There was a streak running down his pant leg, and a puddle beneath his desk. Benjamin didn’t know why it happened; he had a bed-wetting problem at home, but his parents were understanding and supportive. This was the first time it had ever happened at school, however, and he knew his classmates would show him no mercy; they’d make fun of him, and he’d be the laughingstock of the whole school. Even worse, his teacher, Mrs. Butler, was walking in his direction. If Benjamin had a way of disappearing, or of being swallowed up by the earth, he would have gladly taken it. Just then one of his classmates, a girl named Alice Gordon, walked by. She had taken the fish bowl to the sink and filled it with fresh water, and was taking it back to the window sill. Alice was walking very carefully–until she suddenly tripped for no apparent reason, spilling the entire contents on Benjamin’s lap. Water poured over his pants and spilled onto the floor–and Benjamin’s heart leapt with joy. He was saved! No one would see his embarrassing accident. To save face, he had to pretend to be upset with Alice, but actually he could have hugged her. Mrs. Butler hurriedly scooped up the fish and put them back in the bowl; she had Alice mop up the mess while Benjamin was sent to change into his gym clothes until his pants dried. Alice was teased by her classmates for being so clumsy, while Benjamin got extra attention from the other kids, who felt sorry for what happened to him. During religion class that afternoon the lesson was on loving one’s neighbor–and Benjamin couldn’t help but notice Alice had a happy, self-satisfied expression on her face. After school that day Benjamin went over to Alice and asked, “You tripped on purpose, didn’t you?” Alice smiled shyly, then said, “I wet the bed once when I was staying overnight with my aunt and uncle, and I remembered how awful I felt when they found out.” After making sure no one was looking, Benjamin squeezed Alice’s hand in gratitude, then went home with a thankful heart (Sumwalt, Lectionary Stories, Cycle B, p. 52).
Whether in something big, such as giving our life for another person, or in something small, such as saving someone from embarrassment, we are called to treat other people with kindness and compassion–for in this way we show that our love for God is real.
Many times people try to complicate life, making things difficult, challenging, and confusing. Sometimes this is necessary and legitimate, but quite often it’s simply a way for people to make themselves feel important, or to try to control others. That’s how it was with some of the religious leaders of Our Lord’s day; by complicating the Law, they made themselves the indispensable interpreters of it, guaranteeing for themselves a central role in society. Jesus, because He taught the truth with power and simplicity, was a threat to them–so the leaders tried to trap Him. When they asked, “Which commandment of the Law is the greatest?,” they hoped Jesus would say something confusing or controversial or open to argument–anything they could use against Him. However, Our Lord avoided this trap by going straight to the heart of the matter: we must love God with all our strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. This teaching is simple enough that anyone can understand it, and thorough enough that it actually summarizes the entire Law. Loving our neighbor greatly pleases God, for as the 1st Reading shows, the Lord is compassionate, especially toward those in need. Loving God gives us, to use St. Paul’s words from the 2nd Reading, “the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit.” We need rules and laws and commandments, and there’s an important place in the Church for scholars and canon lawyers and experts, but ultimately our faith is meant to be something very simple and down-to-earth. The more we love God, the more we’ll show it in routine, practical ways.
We’re supposed to live lives of love–and this usually means keeping things simple. It’s not necessary for us to write a scholarly essay on the different types of love; after all, no one would ever read it, and it wouldn’t change anyone’s life. There’s no point in talking about how, had things worked out differently, we might have been missionaries in Africa, spreading the Gospel of love and winning the gratitude and admiration of all the people; after all, it’s deeds which matter, not words. There’s no need for us to count up the number of times the word “love” appears in the Bible, or to see which book of the Bible uses it the most; after all, Scripture scholars can figure things like that out far better than we can. When it comes to love, things aren’t supposed to be complicated. Jesus wants our love to be simple, practical, and always available to those who need it. Opening a door for someone with an armful of packages, visiting a neighbor who’s in the hospital, cheering up someone who’s depressed, accepting an apology from someone who hurt us, complimenting a family member who prepared you a meal, chatting for a moment with someone you usually ignore, saying something nice about a person who’s being criticized or gossipped about, going out of your way to make a newcomer feel welcome, or maybe even spilling a bowl of water on someone’s lap so as to save him from embarrassment, are all simple things–and ways of expressing our love for God. The Lord made us so that we need one another, and so that–in responding to this need–we can find Him. Let us love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds–and let us make this love real by loving our neighbor as ourselves.