The Cross of Christ Transforms. . . Law and Love
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in one sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. ROMANS 13:8–10
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. MATTHEW 5:17–18
In Fort Myers, Florida, at the end of a beautiful street lined on either side with majestic royal palms is a small neon sign. It looks out of place; it is in front of home in a residential area. The simple sign is lit with green letters: GOD IS LOVE. The first time I saw this sign, I was visiting a classmate who lived next door to this home. “Is there a church here?” I asked. “No.” “Why is the sign there, then?”
He told me that the family who had lived in the house for the first half of the twentieth century had only one child, a boy. When World War II started, the boy was drafted into the military and soon was fighting in Europe. Back home in Fort Myers the man and his wife prayed constantly, asking God to protect their son and bring him back safely. Tragically, their son was killed in the war. Shortly after the young man’s body had been returned for burial, the father erected the sign in front of their home.
The next day as I was making my way back home, I passed the sign again: GOD IS LOVE. Why had that father erected the sign, when his prayer had not been answered as he had hoped? Had the man erected the sign in anger? Had he put it up to mock the love that God was supposed to have for us? I thought of other families I had known who had suffered similar losses, of parents who came home one day to find their child had been killed in an accident. Under such circumstances, I couldn’t imagine anyone erecting a sign with the proclamation GOD IS LOVE. The sign and its story haunted me, reflecting my own internal struggle.
A week later, a thought struck me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That father was not mocking God at all. Rather, he understood in a way that most of us can’t imagine what God had sacrificed, giving an only son so that others might live. Fulfilling God’s Law Jesus said that he had come not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets. On the cross he said, “It is fulfilled” (John 19:30). Jesus said that there was no greater love than to lay one’s life down for a friend. That is exactly what the Son of God did, and what he asks of his followers as well.
St. Paul, who at a glance one might be tempted to think of as someone who was against the “law,” gives us the reason grace has supplanted the “law.” The love of God, which we experience in our lives as grace, flows into us. That love cannot be contained; it is so great that it spills out and must be spent on others. In love—God’s love—the law is fulfilled. The cross of Christ, which is the most eloquent expression of God’s love for us, is also the instrument by which we receive that love: We must die to ourselves so that Christ’s love might live within us. “Love one another,” Jesus commanded. It is a simple message but complex in practice. How should we express that love?
Love is so misused in our day that it almost has ceased to be a good word. Caritas, the Latin word for love, can also be translated as “charity.” In order to restore the true meaning of “love,” perhaps that is the way we should translate it. God showed charity to the world, through his Son. Jesus tells us to have charity to one another as he has had charity on us. The charity that we are to show to one another is not sentimental or self-serving. We do not expect those we love—whether ourselves, our parents, our spouses, or other people—to be allknowing and all-loving. First and foremost, we love other people by not making them “gods.” We honor those we love despite their human weaknesses and failings, always reserving a special place for God, who is the only perfect Being worthy of worship. The rest of us poor slobs deserve a fair amount of charity because we know only a little, and are limited in every conceivable way. So when we fail each other it is to be expected.
St. Paul says that the only thing we should owe anyone is love. In our “credit card economy,” such an idea is difficult to imagine, but perhaps that makes us better suited to grasp Paul’s message. We know all about owing others money, but how indebted are we when it comes to love? We should start by looking at how much we love God. The faith of the family that erected the GOD IS LOVE sign is remarkable. Most of us are quick to blame God for the horrible things that happen to us. Yet, if you really believe that God is up there just waiting to “get” you, how can you love such a supreme being? This is not the God Christ revealed to us, the God who suffers with us, who became one of us to rescue us from the powers of evil and destruction. In the Scriptures, death is portrayed as an angel; since death is the result of sin, one might presume a bad angel. The love of God, that is, God’s charity for us, is what rescues our loved ones from death and makes eternal life possible. God rescues us from sin and its destructive power. God can make good out of the evil others do and intend for us. This is why God is worthy of love and why God’s love enables us to love others in ways that would be impossible without God’s love. No matter what happens to us, we know that God is victorious. The psalmist says “O that today you would hearken to his voice! Harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7–8).
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