Agape Love – Fr. Gary Pennings

Fr. Gary Pennings’ Homily October 30, 2021

“That first reading today from Deuteronomy and the reference that Jesus makes to it in the Gospel passage are connected to Jewish observances or practices that they still do today at least among Orthodox Jews. It’s really the prayer that is so central to their lives kind of like their version of the Lord’s prayer. It’s called the Shema and they pray it every morning and every evening. It comes from that passage in Deuteronomy, ‘Hear O Israel’ notice the first word is hear. Shema, listen O Israel. Don’t talk. Don’t opine, don’t comment and don’t first think, but first listen, hear O Israel, ‘the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore you should love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.’ Now that was what we heard today, but if you go on and read the next few lines it says, ‘Keep repeating them.’ Some translations say, ‘Drill them into your children. Recite them when you are home and when you are away. When you lie down and when you get up.’ That’s why they pray at morning and night. ‘Bind them on your arms as a sign and let them be appended on your forehead.’ Do you ever go to Israel or see pictures of Orthodox Jews? They have a box up here on their arm, on their weak arm depending if they are right or left handed and they have these leather straps wrapped all the way down their arm around their hand tied off. They have a little leather box on their forehead right above their hairline (well for me that would be pretty far back) but right above their hairline with a strap and in those boxes on their arm and on their forehead, they take this very literally, is a little papyrus, a little scroll of this text. ‘Have this on your heart and on your arm. Attach them on your arm as a sign and let them be appended on your forehead.’ It’s called a tefillin or a phylactery sometimes it’s called.’Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.’ If you’ve ever been to Israel you notice there’s a little brass thing on their door that they kiss, they touch it and they kiss it. It’s called a mezuzah, it’s on apartment buildings at the front door. They have it sometimes even on the different rooms on their homes and inside is scripture. They take it very seriously. The point of these practices is to keep the Lord and His will ever before us. In other words, to have everything in our lives built upon the truth that God is the foundation of our existence and of our destiny. This Jewish practice is meant not to have faith as one silo among many, but to be the foundation upon which everything is built: our family life, our work life, our social life, our hobbies, everything. That’s what the Shema means to the Jews.

In the Gospel, one of the scribes asked Jesus, ‘Which is the first of all the Commandments?’ We ask that, what’s most important? There’s a lot of balls to keep juggling, what’s most important here? Well Judaism had lots of commands. We tend to think when we hear commandment of the Ten Commandments, right? But Judaism, later the number would be 613 commands in the Law of Moses. That’s a lot! So their asking him, ‘Which is the most important here?’ and he says, ‘This one.’ and he recites the Shema from Deuteronomy and he says, ‘The second is like it- you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Elsewhere in scripture Jesus says, ‘These two commandments, they sum up all the law, all those other laws and all the prophets, in other words all the Jewish scriptures they had at the time, they’re all summed up in this law, in these two commandments and that’s why sometimes you hear it called the law of love. When Jesus says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ the Greek word He used in the New Testament is agape. Now there’s four words for love in Greek. Unfortunately in English we don’t have that so you love your spouse just like you love peanut butter, right? It’s the same word, love. I love football. I love hot chocolate. I love my spouse. We just have one word, but in Greek there’s four words. The first word is eros. We get the word erotic from. That’s kind of a sensual, passionate, romantic, often sexual love, but it can also be passionately about aesthetics or beauty or passionate about spirituality, but it’s a feeling love, a passion. The word is not ever used in the New Testament, but certainly The Bible describes that in different ways. In a positive way we see it probably described in the Song of Songs. In a negative way we see it described in some of the ancient immoral pagan practices. Another word for love is storge.  It refers to familial love, the love of siblings, the love of parent and child, the love of relatives, things familiar. It was only used once in the New Testament and it was combined with another word for friendship and it was used about familial affection among the disciples. The third word for love is philia, Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love (although they have one of the highest crime rates in the world) philia is deep emotional connection committed in faithful love, the love of close friends. It’s used in the New Testament to describe the love of friends or a brotherly love of disciples. It’s a love you choose to enter in to and then the last word for love, the word that Jesus uses in the Gospel today is agape, agape love. It’s the highest form of love and it’s the love that results from God’s love for us, a love that’s realized in choices and actions into mere feelings. As a matter of fact sometimes there won’t be any feelings or there will be ill feelings, but agape calls us to act in love anyway. It’s a choice of the will. I’m going to do a loving act even when I don’t feel very loving right now. It’s willing the good of the other for the sake of the other and acting in a way to bring about that good for them with no expectation of anything in return, not even love in return. That’s agape. It’s the kind of love God has for us and don’t we see it how often we dismiss God, how often we ignore Him and yet He continues to love us with this intense love, willing our good, desiring to forgive us, desiring for us to attain eternal life.

There’s an interesting passage in the 21st passage of John. Remember that passage after the resurrection when Jesus appears to Peter and he says, ‘Peter, do you love me?’ Jesus uses the word agape. He says, ‘Peter do you agapas me?’ It’s a form of agape. Do you love me? Remember what Peter says? ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ You know how Peter answers that? He doesn’t use the word agape. He used philos se, from philia. He said, ‘Yeah I like you as a friend.’ Jesus asked a second time, ‘Peter, do you love me?’ and he used agape again. Do you love me with this kind of committed love not desiring anything in return, but giving it your all. Do you love me that way Peter? Peter answers again, ‘Lord, you know I love you.’ and he uses the word philia. I love you as a friend, yeah. Finally a third time Jesus comes down to his level. He says, ‘Okay Peter, you’re not there quite yet. You need a little more grace.’ and then He says, ‘Peter, philias me?’ Do you love me? Peter answers, ‘I do love you as a friend.’ Peter wasn’t able to agape love yet, but he would. In the year 64, he gave his life for Jesus and it wasn’t about feeling then. It was a lot more than friendship then. It was about giving it all, but it took him a while. He wasn’t able to do it right away.
Jesus today in the Gospel uses the word, agape. Love the Lord your God in that way. Let the love be realized by your choice and actions even though you may not always feel it and then love your neighbor, again the word agape, love your neighbor as yourself. Note that this command of Jesus’ is the highest form of love and we can’t do that on our own. That’s why we pray daily. Lord help me to love rightly. It’s one of life’s greatest challenges, to learn how to love rightly because Heaven won’t tolerate disordered love. There’s only perfect love in Heaven. This is the time to learn it. This is the time when God is helping us through the joys and the struggles of life to learn how to love the way He wants us to love, agape kind of love. That’s why we come to Mass. That’s why we immerse ourself in God’s word so that it can transform us. We come here for the grace to encounter love itself so that we can walk out of here and begin at least to love the way the Lord calls us to love that agape love, that love that loves even when we don’t get anything in return. Jesus uses that word in His command to love and he said, ‘All the law and the prophets are summed up in this command of love.’ and so we are called to love God that way and to love our neighbor that way. I use this great commandment, these two commands for an examination of conscience. I use those before I go to confession. I use those to ask the Lord to show me what I’ve done in those areas, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. God, neighbor, self- I ask how have I done in the God department? Have I prayed daily? Is He truly the Lord of my life or do I have a lot of other things I worship? Do I love Him with all my heart or is my heart divided? Am I pulled in many directions? Do I honor His name? Do I honor His day? Neighbor, that’s pretty much everybody else. Do I lie, steal, cheat? Do I use others for my own advantage? Do I gossip? Do I take advantage of others? Do I ignore others? Am I concerned about the poor and the needy? Am I comfortable in my bubble? And lastly, self- do I love myself rightly or do I have a disordered love of myself? Do I think too highly of myself? Am I inflated or proud or the opposite, am I my own worst enemy? Do I sabotage all the good God’s trying to do through me because I have a low esteem and love of myself? I use this great commandment as an examination of conscience. It’s easier to remember than all the commandments or the Beatitudes or the seven deadly sins, right? God, neighbor, self. Jesus says, ‘Love God in a way that informs all your choices, all your priorities, all your actions, all the aspects of your lives, all your relationships should be colored by this agape love. As I said, our prayer and the grace of this Mass helps us do that and then with God’s help, love your neighbor that way as well. It may be like Peter, maybe we can’t do it today, but we can start. With God’s help, maybe we will be able to do it tomorrow or next week or next year or at least before we take our last breath. Jesus said, ‘If you love like this, if you can love with this agape love, then you’re not far from the Kingdom of God.’”