Opening the Word: The freedom to love


“Freedom exists for the sake of love.”

This quote from Pope St. John Paul II seems to summarize our readings for this Sunday. Perhaps it doesn’t seem that way at first. Perhaps the readings, at first, seem to be an exhortation: “Go out … tell the Good News! Bring all the nations as an offering to God!” And then a condemnation: “You have forgotten the exhortation. … Do not disdain the discipline of the Lord.” And then just an enigma: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

So let’s think about them this way with John Paul II.

Freedom allows love to be genuine. Put differently, we must be free in order to love God and one another well. To draw others to the Gospel, we must show them the truly beautiful and joyful thing about it: God’s love for us. And ours for him.

When it comes to love, God is our teacher — and he has been since “the beginning.” God exhorts us, as every good teacher should, by his own example of love. His love is revealed to us in Scripture, and his blood is the “sign” placed among us every Mass (cf. Is 66).

Scripture is also full of images of the difficult task of being educated in love, of learning how to be free. The nation of Israel confesses again and again how difficult it is! How it requires discipline to be and to remain truly free — to be an example of God’s love for all the other nations. An example so true that it might draw all these other nations to God: “bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations!” (Is 66:20).

Thinking of our education in freedom, and the inherent discipline involved, I appreciate Pope John Paul II’s description of love in “Love and Responsibility”: “Love should be seen as something which in a sense never ‘is’ but is always only ‘becoming.'”

There are two things here for us: First, to love well, then, coincides with our own “becoming.” And thus we arrive at our enigma: To become most truly ourselves, we should give ourselves away. John Paul II tells us that our truest vocation is to become a “genuine self-gift.” Perhaps this is a way of being “last,” and of putting one who is “last” first. Another bishop and saint of the Church, Ignatius of Antioch, used to exhort the faithful of his Church to compete in love.

Second, to love well coincides with coming to understand Christ better and better, and so with remaining at the school of his death and resurrection. This school is offered to us nowhere better than in the Eucharist. Each time we receive God’s genuine self-gift, we learn to offer ourselves freely for the sake of love: “I believe … the Mystery of our Faith. … Amen!”

If I could hold up one modern example of living according to today’s readings, I would turn our gaze toward St. Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa lived according to all the dimensions of Christ’s very human words from the cross: “I thirst.” She heard in these words a call to love God, and in this love for God, to love the least — the poorest of the poor, meaning those without any experience of love. And so she gave herself to them. And thus she gave them the Gospel! She lived her whole life in two places simultaneously: the foot of the cross and the streets of India. She used her freedom to remain there and to care for the destitute and the dying, becoming more and more, every day, a gift to us all, an experience of love to all who knew her and an example of always “becoming” more Eucharistic ourselves.

August 21 – Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is 66:18-21
Ps 117:1, 2
Heb 12:5-7, 11-13
Lk 13:22-30


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