Joshua 24:1-13; Psalm 136:1; Matthew 19:3-12
Today’s readings remind me of that famous scene in the musical Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye asks Golde, his wife of 25 years, do you love me? She replies, “Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow, after 25 years, why talk about love right now?” He repeats, do you love me? “I’m your wife.” I know… But do you love me? She thinks out loud, “Do I love him? For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought him, starved with him, 25 years my bed is his, if that’s not love, what is?” Then you love me? Finally, she replies, “I suppose I do…”
Why does this scene remind me of the readings? Because today Scripture focuses on what love is in its essence, and that scene highlights three key aspects of it.
First, love is a verb. We love not in what we say but in what we do. Through Joshua, God speaks to people who, from the time of Abraham, through the oppression in Egypt, the fleeing, struggling, and starving in the desert, might well have asked, “God, do you love us?” Today we hear God reply: “Do I love you? Remember all the things I’ve done for you, and look what lies before you: You’ve made it to the Promised Land!”
That reply echoes through the ages to today, to every one of us. We each have our own struggles, physical and spiritual. Through all of them, God isn’t sitting silently in the background; he is in every moment, working in ways beyond our understanding. His work may be unknown to us this moment, this month, or this year, but like the Promised Land, its fruit lies waiting. We must never mistake silence for inaction or indifference; God is eternally vigilant, eternally loving, always acting for our good.
This brings up the second point: Love is timeless. How fitting that we hear Psalm 136 today, especially the antiphon, His mercy endures forever. The Hebrew word translated as “mercy” is hesed, which includes mercy but implies action, things we do when we are motivated by love and loyalty to someone else. In the scene from Fiddler on the Roof, remember that Golde replied, “After 25 years, why talk about love right now?” To her, the amount of time was not the point; she had committed her life to her marriage.
Jesus speaks of this kind of commitment in the gospel when he quotes the passage from Genesis that a man is joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Again to go back to the ancient language, the word for “joined” literally means, “glued.” Imagine gluing two pieces of paper, allowing them to dry, then trying to tear them apart. We know what will happen; the kind of pain and suffering that only such tearing can bring.
This leads us to a third aspect of love, which in the words of venerable Fulton Sheen is that love is the soul of sacrifice. Recall how Golde replied when Tevye asked if she loved him: all the sacrifices she had made, the things she had endured, for him. But not just for him, for herself as well. Only those willing to make the greatest sacrifice for love’s sake can know the deepest joys that love brings. When it comes to love, joy and sacrifice can never be separated; in married life, in ministry, in whatever kind of service we are called, only those who are most fully open, who risk the greatest vulnerability, can know the deepest, most fulfilling joy: to know and to be known, to accept and be accepted; to love and to be loved.
As in all things, the best model for all these aspects of love is our Lord, Jesus Christ. Who performed greater works of love than he? Whose love is more timeless? Who is the soul of sacrifice more than he who was willing to empty himself into his own creation to show us that those who risk the ultimate sacrifice of themselves are given the ultimate joy of resurrection to eternal life? Only Christ could most perfectly show us all this, the great paradox of love: that giving is receiving; that most fully knowing means to be most fully known; and that only by dying to ourselves can we reach the promised land of eternal life.