Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Nov. 4.
What words would you like to have on your lips at the moment of death? Your plane is falling from the sky, you’re headed over the waterfall, your car is about to crash.
Can you imagine how many people die shouting four-letter words bound to make a poor first impression in purgatory? Ever had a really big scare? Did you spontaneously say a quick prayer and find peace or did you say something else and feel terror? Where was your heart at that moment — with God or elsewhere?
Muslims hope to die professing “Allah Akbar: God is great!” Jews hope to die praying the Shema prayer taught by Moses in today’s first reading, which Jesus calls the greatest of all the commandments: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jews expect to have a little more time for that last prayer than Muslims do.
And then Jesus expands on the Shema by connecting it to another commandment of Moses: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
These two commandments contain all the others: the first three of the 10 Commandments are about loving God, placing no gods before him, not taking God’s name in vain, keeping holy the Lord’s day. And the other seven Commandments are about loving our neighbor as ourself. Since we don’t want to be victims of dishonor, physical harm, adultery, theft, lies or envy we must not do any of these things to others. If you love God and neighbor, you’ll naturally keep all of God’s commandments.
Most Americans are confused about love, however. They think love is an emotion, that love of God and neighbor means warm feelings about God and neighbor. Wrong! Feelings often accompany love but love itself is not about feelings. Love is an act of will and has to do with the choices we make.
In Jesus’ time people said they felt emotions in their guts, not their hearts. The heart was the seat of the will. For instance, in the Bible stout-hearted doesn’t mean “fat lover,” it means strong-willed. The point being that when Jesus says to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, he is using four synonyms to say that we must do God’s will in all things. And the same is true about loving our neighbor as ourself, which does not necessarily mean that we like them — liking is just a feeling, loving is an act of will: Doing things to benefit others — whether we like them personally or not.
What thoughts would you like to have running through your mind at the moment of death? When your life flashes before your eyes, what will you see? Memories of a self-centered life leading to eternal separation from God in hell? Memories of missed opportunities to do things to benefit others, leading to reform school in purgatory? Or memories of a life of faithful service of God and neighbor, putting you on the fast track to heaven?
Ever had a wake-up call? If not, this is it. Note well: God does not merely request and these are not merely suggestions. He commands that we love, do his will with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and that we love our neighbor as ourself, do things to benefit others.
If you are faithful, you will greet death with a prayer on your lips, memories of a life lived for others and a feeling of peace, followed by a passing grade on Judgment Day.
But if instead you live mainly for yourself, unconcerned about God’s will and the needs of others, you will greet death with 4-letter words, memories of sins and regrets, and a feeling of despair.
The choice is yours! Pious words are not enough: only those who actually do the will of God will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
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