Sep. 5, 2020

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

PAYING OFF THE DEBT OF LOVE

Readings: 1st- Ezek. 33:7-9; 2nd- Rom. 12:8-10; gospel- Matt. 18:15-20

On the tv show, Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Altman is one of the doctors who work for Seattle Grace Hospital. A young man is admitted with multiple pathological issues involving pancreas, kidney, heart, and other problems related to his organs. After reviewing his case, the hospital management decides that his insurance won’t cover the necessary treatment cost so they ask him to leave. Dr. Altman presses the chief medical director to give the young man’s case some special consideration and perform surgery on him with a waiver. All her efforts to convince the hospital fail. She goes back to the guy and pitiably narrates the hospital’s decision. They young man decides to leave, perhaps to die at home after a few months. Dr. Altman cries within herself. As she bids him farewell and turns to leave, it occurs to her that she can do something radical. She says to him, “You know I have good insurance.” The guy isn’t sure what that means. Then comes the shock, “I could marry you, and save your life,” says Dr. Altman. In utter amazement this guy responds, “Do you understand what you’re saying?” Of course, she did. She marries him, precisely to save him. The complicated surgery is performed successfully, and the guy lives. The hospital management sees Dr. Altman’s action as foolish. Isn’t that what love does? Love makes you look foolish and unreasonable.

Saint Paul challenges us on what can be described as the debt of love in the second reading of today as he writes to the Roman community, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.” Like Jesus, Paul commands Christians to go beyond seeing love as a mere duty prescribed in the Old Testament. The Jewish law on love says, “You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against the members of your race but will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). For the Jews, love was a reciprocal act while the neighbor was a member of one’s group/family. In the New Testament, Christ sums up the entire commandments into two: love of God and love of neighbor. Christ demands, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul, in today’s reading dwells on the second part of the commandment and points out the real implications of loving the neighbor as oneself. For Paul, the commandments flow from love - to not commit adultery, not kill, not steal or covet are all aspects of love. Love, in Paul’s terms, is a debt that we all owe, which means we have an obligation to pay it off. The law is meaningless without love. Paul declares, “love is the fulfillment of the law.”

The first reading and the gospel get into the specifics of what it means to practice love in the Christian life. The prophet Ezekiel sees it as interpersonal responsibility, what we call “tough love.” Ezekiel is God’s “watchman for the house of Israel” and must warn them in the manner demanded by God. He must tell Israel the truth that will save them. This is one way to understand our responsibilities to one another. Most times, we shy away from telling the truth to our loved ones in the claims that we love them. That’s fake love. For love to be authentic, it bears responsibility. Love anchors on the truth. 

As parents, teachers, pastors, and leaders at various levels, we stand as watchmen. We owe the truth to our subjects and dependents. Parents are watchmen in their homes. Teaches are watchmen in the schools. Priests are watchmen in the church. Politicians are watchmen in the society. Doctors and nurses are watchmen in the hospitals. Friends are watchmen to their friends. Watchmen look after those entrusted to their care. They cover their backs in a responsible way. They protect them against dangers and threats. They show them tough love enshrined in the truth.

The next demand of love is forgiveness and reconciliation. Christ stipulates that if one’s brother offends him, forgive him. If he refuses to listen, go the extra step, take a witness or two. Then tell the church if he refuses further. After all efforts have been exhausted, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” But before you sing eureka at that last statement, it is good to pay attention to what Christ means by asking us to treat those who fail to listen to us as Gentiles and tax collectors. Does it mean to cast them out, reject them or take revenge? I’m not too sure about that. Some scripture scholars remind us that Christ treated Gentiles and tax collectors with love. He did not discard them, rather He saw them as lost sheep needing extra care. He went into their homes, dined with them, and brought them back into the fold. How about that? This makes sense if we read through the last instruction in that gospel passage. Christ says to the disciples, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The big question here would be, can people gather in the name of Christ if they do not love each other, if they are not able to forgive? Can there be a Christian gathering without reconciliation? Can people gather to pray together if they don’t agree?

The debt of love resides therefore, in truth and forgiveness. Let’s take it back to family life. I hear so much about people struggling with their brothers and sisters, with their husbands and wives, with their ex’s, and with their in-laws. Sometimes, it feels that cutting some of these “family members” out of our lives because of their attitude is best. At times, the actions of some of these family members makes the situation exasperating.  Some of us might think we have exhausted the options presented in today’s gospel with nothing to show for it. Believe me, it can be hard. Personally, I come from a large family with siblings and in-laws. It can be a challenge to manage the relationships and be at peace with everyone. But the truth remains that to make love reign, we must act like Dr. Altman and be a fool for love. To love like Christ is to be foolish, and as Mother Teresa says, “Intense love does not measure, it just gives.”

So, if Saint Paul says, “Owe no one anything except to love one another,’ the question for us today becomes to discover whom we owe. Who do you owe the debt of love? How long have you owed that person? Think about it from two standpoints- truth and forgiveness. Do you owe the truth, the hard truth to your children as a parent or teacher? Do you watch them derail without saying anything? That’s not love, it’s permissiveness. Do you shy away from informing them about the demands of the gospel, the sanctity of life, the importance of witnessing to their faith out of fear that they might get mad at you? That’s a huge responsibility you have as a watchman or woman.. And God expects you to speak the truth in love. He expects you to speak up, speak the truth.

Do you owe the debt of forgiveness to anyone? Have you been bearing grudges for offences committed against you for decades now? Are you resentful about any member of your family? Are you waiting for someone to come crawling on her knees before you forgive and let go? That’s not the correct Christian way of life. Christ asks you to pay that debt. Dr. Altman was very rational and structured in her practice until she saw that patient. At that moment, she did not count loss or gain, not interested in cost. She just loved. Can’t we love, love and love? “Love counts no wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). Today, it might be proper to assess the value of love we’ve shown during this period of COVID as we all were forced into our family circles. My take-home for you today is- offer one loving action each day, say one truth each day, offer one forgiveness each day, and you will grow. And as Mother Teresa would say, “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” That’s the best way to pay off love’s debt.