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The Fifth Commandment and Charity

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Our focus in reflecting on charity will be to see how our Lord elevated the Old Testament precept. There was a precept of charity already in the Old Law. In sequence, we will look briefly at the Old Testament precept of charity and then the four ways in which our Lord elevated the (what we now so casually call) Christian charity: by elevating the norm, elevating the means, elevating the scope and elevating the purpose of charity.

First then, very briefly, the most explicit statement in the Old Testament on the practice of charity towards others is found in the book of Leviticus. To be exact, Leviticus 19:18. One simple imperative, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In context, the word neighbor refers to “your brother”. Again or in the same context, “your fellow countrymen”. Christ as we know, not only respected the Old Testament precept, but repeated it. Nevertheless, as He also told us, even though verbally He repeated the commandment, in reality He raised it to a love that had never been commanded by God on the human race; never before.

First then, Christ elevated the norm. Not surprisingly, it is in John’s gospel that the evangelist, under divine inspiration, [records in] chapters of Christ’s discourse of the Last Supper, concentrating on love, the love within the Trinity, the love from the Trinity to humanity, and the love modeled on the Trinity within humanity. Christ told the disciples, “This is my (and that should be underlined!), this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In the same discourse at the Last Supper, our Lord calls this, “The New Commandment”.

Our purpose in this meditation is to see how, note, how Christ’s commandment of charity is new. It is so new that it identifies the New Testament in practice, the New Testament in faith, believing that God became man. But the New Testament in practice is Christ’s commandment to love. So we ask ourselves (and we cannot ask this too often of ourselves) how is Christ’s commandment of charity new?

It is first of all new because the norm or the standard for our loving others is no longer merely (that is a crucial adverb) merely that we are to love another person as we love ourselves. How do we love ourselves? I run out of space. We love ourselves: spontaneously, we love ourselves constantly, we love ourselves uninterruptedly, we love ourselves endearingly, we love ourselves enduringly, we love ourselves instinctively, we love ourselves naturally. What else? We love ourselves abidingly, we love ourselves generously, we love ourselves patiently. I thought I would add one more, and we love ourselves tirelessly. We never get weary of loving ourselves. And you add more adverbs.

What then is the new norm or standard? It is that we are to love others as Christ has loved us. The moment He said that, we realize that the norm is no longer, I don’t say merely our own self love (with all those rich adverbs) the norm, nor even that we are to love others, well, as human beings to the limit of our human capacity. Oh no, we are to love others as Christ who is God, we are to love others, and the Word is revealed. We are to love others divinely.

So what does it mean to say, as we must say, we are to love others not only humanly to the limit of our human capacity, but beyond, even we are to love others as God has been loving us. And I have three words, each beginning with an “s” that explain what we mean when we say that we are to love others divinely.

We are to love them supernaturally. In other words, beyond the capacity of all created nature. Evidently, this kind of love cannot be shown by our own native human powers. This kind of love requires divine grace. How are we to then love others where Christ elevated the norm beyond the Old Testament? Sacrificially. God became man to love us even to sacrifice Himself on the cross out of love for us. Oh, how learned those words may sound, or depending on the viewpoint, how cheap. It is that we are to love others, given the new norm that Christ laid on His followers. To sacrifice ourselves for the one that we claim to love.

And finally, to identify what we mean by loving others. To paraphrase Christ’s language, divinely we are to love them selflessly. By ourselves naturally, humanly, even the deepest and dearest love we may have for someone else, it is a self-calculating love. Just good business, you want people to love you, you got no choice. You have to pay the price, it is business- love them. We are not denying the value of that love, we are saying however, that Christ’s norm is much higher. It is nothing less than loving others with no expectations of self-benefit in return.

We are asking how has Christ elevated the Old Testament precept of charity? By the means that He now provides for the practice of His humanly impossible virtue. Having elevated the norm, you might say that Christ had no choice. He had to provide the means. The means, as we have said, and now we further explain, the means are divine grace. That is why Christ instituted the sacraments. We go through all seven sacraments; they all have to do with possessing and practicing charity. And just for the record, if anybody ever asks you what is the value of getting baptized? Well, you can tell them through baptism you receive a power that no human being can possibly have access to: the power of loving others with sacrificial, selfless charity.

That is also why Christ instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony, to enable His married followers to love each other, one man one women until death. And out of love for one another, not only to share and to sacrifice each to the other, but to love even children who have not yet been conceived. That is why over the centuries the Church has always spoken of the begetting of children as procreation. Imitating, as far as human beings can, the creator in His loving and nonexistent human race. To bring human beings out of nothing into existence. However, among the seven sacraments there is one that is uniquely, distinctly instituted by Christ to provide us with the divine grace we need, indispensably need, to practice Christ-like charity, and that is the holy Eucharist.

If we are to love other people supernaturally, which means superhumanly, we better have access to superhuman knowledge of the mind to see lovableness in unlovable people. And people can be (in case nobody told you) can be very unlovable. On the revealed terms of Christianity no human being on earth is unlovable. Let me repeat, on the principles of Christianity, no human being on earth is unlovable. Oh, I don’t deny that people can be naturally unlovable, and how! But that is what supernatural charity is all about. And in teaching the theology of the Holy Eucharist, lectures, I would spend on explaining how each of the three levels of the holy Eucharist, divinely instituted to provide us with the means we need, and how we need them to love others as Christ wants us to.

The Eucharist is the sacrifice of the Mass. The grace we need to love others, sufferingly. Suffering for the one or ones we claim to love. Suffering with those we say we love. Suffering like those we protest we love. And the hardest of all, suffering from those we love. Or should I change the sentence? Loving those from whom we experience may be the deepest pain on earth, and that is what Calvary is all about. That is why Christ made sure He would institute the sacrament, hear it, the sacrament of the Mass. Of course it is a sacrifice, but it is a sacrament to provide us with the grace to sacrifice ourselves and patiently endure and love the one or the ones who cause us suffering.

The holy Eucharist is Holy Communion. The grace, Catholic theology tells us, to be able to give and keep giving and giving and giving to those we protest that we love. And what do people most want from us? What is it? What they most want from us is ourselves.

We need dear Lord, how we need the grace of Holy Communion to be able to love in this way. And the Real Presence, the grace provided, call it radiating grace, call it emanating grace, just because Christ is present on earth, he pours out grace. The grace here to see Christ in everyone who enters our life. To believe in loving them, we are loving Him. So much for the means, now the scope.

The Old Testament precept of charity reads, and I read and reread in preparation for this meditation the whole context in Leviticus. No doubt about it, the Old Testament precept of “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself”, the neighbor means kindred. The neighbor means somebody who is friendly. The neighbor means somebody who is somehow related to us whom then we are to love.

How has Christ elevated the scope of the Old Testament commandment of charity? In two ways: Christ tells us to love not only our kindred, or those who are friendly, or those who are related, but to love strangers. And I thought it was worth expanding on Christ’s elevation of the precept of charity by telling us we are to love also strangers. And it would have to occur in the gospel of St. Luke 10: 35-37. I thought it was worth quoting the whole parable of the Good Samaritan. Our Lord is giving the parable:

A certain lawyer got up to test Him (Jesus) saying, “Master, what must I do to gain eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law, how do you read?”
The lawyer answered and said, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with all your strength, and with your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
And He said to him, “You have answered rightly. Do this and you shall live.”
But the lawyer wishing to justify himself said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Ah a typical question of a lawyer)
Jesus answered, “ A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell in with robbers. After both stripping him and beating him, they went their way leaving him half dead. When as it happened a certain priest was going down the same way and when he saw him, he passed by. And likewise a Levite, when he was near the place and saw him, passed by. But, a certain Samaritan as he journeyed looked upon him and seeing him was moved with compassion. He went up to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. And setting him on his own beast, he brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denari and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend I on my way back will repay you.’
“Which of these three in your opinion proved himself neighbor to him who fell among robbers?”
And the lawyer said, “ He who took pity on him.”
And Jesus said, “Go and do also in like matter.”

So far the parable of the Good Samaritan.

What are we being told? Same word neighbor, but what a difference. And we can honestly say that the two Jews who passed by this beaten, bleeding Samaritan were following the law, to say the least (and that is the least). The Samaritans were strangers to the Jews.

In other words, how has Christ elevated the scope or the object of the practice of charity? By telling us kinship, friendship, relationship is not the New Testament norm for loving others. Before God no one is a stranger. God puts “strangers” into our lives.

Secondly, and here we could spend the rest of the retreat, but at least the whole month of January on the repeated teaching of Christ’s on loving our enemies. Just three out of so many quotations: The imperative, “Love your enemies”, and by theological definition an enemy is one who does not love us, and of course shows it, and we know it.

Christ tells us, “Do good to those who hate you.” What is He saying, repay the harm they do to you by doing good to them? Oh no, that is impossible! You are right, it cannot be done! You’re right. That is for me my favorite definition of divine grace. Divine grace is the power we receive from God to do the humanly impossible.

Again our Lord, “Pray for those who persecute you.” If we are going to be selective in our prayers, what a revealed selectivity gives us. We go on.

Christ elevated the Old Testament precept by telling us that the purpose was not only as the Old Law, to [put it] very simply, the second commandment, was given to the Jew so that they might put the first commandment into practice. In other words, the Old Testament purpose or finality was to put one’s love of God into practice by loving others, who are one’s neighbor as just described.

You might say that the second of the two major precepts of the Old Law, loving God and loving one’s neighbor, the second is an expression of the first. But notice [that] that expression, as we have been saying, was limited compared to what Christ did by elevating the precept of loving others.

What did our Lord do? And it is John again, and by the way mainly of course his gospel, but also, also, his three letters are all about charity, love and how anyone who claims that he loves God and does not love his neighbor, remember? Is what? A liar. That is John. It is then, in John’s gospel at the Last Supper that Christ gave us the new, the new purpose for practicing charity.

Really it is a bifocal purpose. First He said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And secondly He said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What then did Christ do by elevating the finality or the goal of charity? First, in order to form the mystical body, which is the Church He founded. What are we saying? We are saying that Christ elevated the practice of charity, making it the ground, or more, perspective, the soul from another perspective, of the Church that on the next day (on Good Friday) He would institute the moment He died on the cross.

What is this ground on which His Church is based? What is this soul the animie claysee as we say in Latin? The soul of the Church. What is it? It is selfless love, where the members of Christ’s mystical body love one another, the language Christ used.

It is that love, of course based on faith and the apostles by his grace. That is why, as over the years I have been telling either my students or in this case you who are making the retreat, having said what He did, “Love one another as I have loved you”, Christ had no choice. He had to on that same occasion institute the Holy Eucharist. He had to. But, notice Christ’s understanding of His Church was and is that His followers were to form a communion of love.

Pope Paul VI favorite word for the Church - “communion of love”. Indeed, the Church founded by Christ was to be and is, insofar, as it is authentically Catholic, “the community of love.”

We know, how well we know, as different and diverse and desperate as Christ’s followers would be and are, they were nevertheless becoming one body by their mutual, reciprocal, communal love for one another. And this is the crisis in the Catholic Church today. A crisis of love. Always of course based on faith, but in practice lived out in that selfless love for one another.

But Christ tells us there was and is also a second reason, purpose we are calling it, which then elevates His commandment of charity beyond anything conceivable in the Old Testament and that is to witness to the world that God, who is love, became man. If God, IF (that is a hypothesis), if God who is love really became incarnate then there should be some evidence. Evidence among those who believe in Him.

Why then, last purpose, to witness to the world that the God who became man is love incarnate, we can prove it! Because He enables those who believe in Him to love one another with a selfless love that only His grace could make possible and should I add, and His grace imagine, make enjoyable, loving unlovable people. And by now we know, oh Lord, how well you know us, and how you probe us. My own vocabulary, what characters you put into our lives? Oh dear Lord, “Yes my dear?”

So true was this, and continues to be that the toughest charity of the early Christians was the principle magnet which attracted the brutal, selfish, cruel pagan world of the Roman Empire of Christianity. And the phrase we read you all memorized, the pagan said, (blinked their eyes, they couldn’t believe it.) “See how these Christians love one another.”

Over the centuries this has been (and let’s tell ourselves) one of the main signs of the true Church. Those who belong to the Church loved, and love one another. A mutual love is the mark of the Church’s creditability. What is that mark of creditability? It is unity. One in love, one through love, one because of love, and the price as we all know is extra ordinary. That is why God became man, and is on earth with us as man, to provide us with the power we don’t have of ourselves to love one another as He has loved us. So that believing in Him in His Real Presence joining with Him in His sacrifice of Calvary repeated on our alters, and receiving Him into our own bodies we might be able to follow His example. Love one another as He has loved, and is loving us.

Lord Jesus how we need, how dispiritedly we need Your grace to live out as humanly impossible commandment of loving one another as You our God has loved us even to death on the cross. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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