Commentaries on the Readings: 1 John 4:7-16; Ps 118; Matt 23:8-12
The Gospel reading from chapter 23 of Matthew is a denunciation of the mentality of many of the Scribes and Pharisees. On the one hand they were very legalistic in their interpretation of the Law of Moses and at the same time tended to put themselves on a pedestal, seeing themselves as superior to ‘ordinary’ people.
In today’s passage Jesus speaks of their demands to be given honorific titles and to have people bowing and scraping to their superior virtue. He tells his followers that they are not to adopt such titles. They were not to be called ‘Rabbi’ because they had only one ‘Rabbi’, God, and they were all brothers to each other. They were to address no one among them as ‘Father’ because they had only one Father and that was God. And they were not to be called ‘Master’ because they had only one Master and that was the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus their Master and Lord.
Unfortunately, in the history of the Church many civic titles were accumulated and we still have them with us, although with less insistence than before.
Augustine was one of the greatest minds in the history of the Christian Church. He was a bishop and so could have demanded the same kind of honours which the Pharisees (both Jewish and Christian) expected. But he was not like that at all. In spite of his great intellect and theological acumen and his position as leader of his diocese, he lived a simple life with his clergy and showed a deep concern for the poor.
The motivation for all this is contained in the First Reading from the First Letter of John. This is one of the most striking passages in the whole of the Scriptures. It is about the centrality of love in our relationship with God and with the people all around us. But it is a special kind of love. The word that the Letter uses is agape (’agaph). Agape-love is an outreaching concern for the other which is totally unconditional. It is given irrespective of how it is received – or rejected.
In today’s short passage a form of the word agape occurs no less than 15 times. It is the love which God has for his creation and for each and every one of us. It is the love which Jesus, the Son of God, showed and which reached its climax on the Cross. It is the love by which followers of Jesus will be recognised.
This love is not just something which God does. God IS this love. It is his very nature. He cannot not love. For us to be like him is to be people of this love. “By this will all know that you are my followers, that you have agape-love for one another.”
And this love is all we need. The Letter today says, “Where there is agape-love, there is God.” Augustine, who was a very passionate person both before and after his conversion, wrote commentaries on this Letter. One of his most striking phrases is: ‘Ama, et fact quod vis’, ‘Love, and do whatever you like.’ In other words, provided an act or a word is an expression of agape-love, it cannot be bad – because where there is agape-love, God is there. It makes life very simple – and very challenging.
He left behind many memorable sayings. Here are two which are among the best known:
Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou wast with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.
Thou hast burst my bonds asunder;
Unto Thee will I offer up an offering of praise.