Charity of the Heart

Gospel Commentary for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, OCT. 24, 2008 ( “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Adding the words “as yourself,” Jesus puts us in front of a mirror before which we cannot lie; he has given us an infallible measure for determining whether we love our neighbor.

We know well in every circumstance what it means to love ourselves and how we want others to treat us. Note well that Jesus does not say: “What the other person does to you, do to him.” This would be the law of talion: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” He says rather: as you would like others to treat you, treat them in same way (cf. Matthew 7:12).

Jesus considered love of neighbor “his commandment,” that which summarizes the whole Law. “This is my commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Many identify the whole of Christianity with the precept of love of neighbor, and they are not completely wrong. We must try, however, to go a little beyond the surface of things. When we speak of love of neighbor our minds turn immediately to “works” of charity, to the things that should be done for our neighbor: giving him to eat and drink, visiting him, in sum helping our neighbor. But this is an effect of love, it is not yet love. Before “beneficence” there is “benevolence,” that is, before doing good there is willing good.

Charity must be “without pretense,” in other words, it must be sincere (literally, “without hypocrisy”) (Romans 12:9); you must love “from a true heart” (1 Peter 1:22). Indeed, you can do “charitable” acts and give alms for motives that do not have anything to do with love: to impress, to look like a do-gooder, to earn heaven, to ease your conscience. A great deal of the charity that we offer to Third World countries is not directed by love but by a desire to ease our conscience. We realize the scandalous difference between them and us and we feel somewhat responsible for their misery. You can lack charity even in “doing charity”!

It is clear that it would be a fatal error to oppose the heart’s love and active charity, or to take refuge in good intentions toward others in such a way that we use them as an excuse for a lack of active and concrete charity on our part. If you meet a poor person, hungry and numb with cold, St. James says, what good does it do to say “You poor thing, go, keep warm and eat something!” when you give him nothing of what he needs? “Children,” St. John adds, “let us not love in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). It is not a matter of devaluing external works of charity, but of making sure that they have their basis in a genuine sentiment of love and benevolence.

This interior charity, or charity of the heart, is charity that can be exercised by all and always, it is universal. It is not a charity that only a few — the rich and the healthy — bestow, and others — the poor and the sick — receive. All can give and receive. Furthermore, it is very concrete. It is a matter of beginning to look with a new eye upon the situations and people with which we live. What is this new eye? It’s simple: it is the eye with which we would like God to look upon us! The eye of mercy, of benevolence, of understanding, of mercy.

When this happens all our relationships change. As if by a miracle, all the prejudice and hostility that kept us from loving a certain person falls away and we begin to open up to what he is in reality: a poor human being who suffers from his weaknesses and limits, like you, like everyone. It is as if the mask that people and things placed over his face has begun to slip and the person appears to us as he truly is.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40.

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