Posted: 15 May 2009 09:00 PM PDT (Catholic Exchanged)
Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48 / 1 Jn 4:7-10 / Jn 15:9-17
When all else fails, threaten. “Just wait until your father gets home!” is a mother’s familiar threat. It’s a threat that a child properly formed in filial piety finds difficult to ignore. If anyone insists that he is “never motivated by threats,” ask him if he is more attentive on the interstate when a state patrol vehicle is near. Though we lament the need for threats in motivating good behavior, for better or for worse, we respond to threats.
The Lord occasionally uses threatening language. He warns the Pharisees, “a brood of vipers” who presume to know more than Christ, that they ought to fear “the wrath to come” (Mt. 3:7). He warns that one who scandalizes children risks a punishment so severe that it would be better that “a great millstone [be] fastened round his neck” and he would be “drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt. 18:6). In language which seems similarly threatening, he warns that “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt. 5:22).
But there is something pathological within us if we are motivated only by threats. A driver who is habitually reckless except when police are nearby should be stopped before he kills or is killed. A child who responds only to the threat of punishment is being prepared for a prison cell. If we are motivated by threats, our motivations to good behavior must be perfected by love.
Mature people avoid reckless driving not only because they fear arrest; they recognize the self-centeredness of recklessness as well as the danger to others. It is a mark of maturity when a child is motivated to good behavior more by his love for his parents than fear of punishment.
Love defines the relationship between mother and child. Love is expressed by obedience in friendship.
Obedience to Christ is not the obedience of a slave. Shortly before his Crucifixion, the Lord redefines his relationship with his disciples. He tells them, “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15:15).
Christ equates love with obedience: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments” (Jn 15:10). To those who are mature enough to see the fullness of God’s revelation, there is no longer a need for threats. On the contrary, the Lord says to his disciples, who have matured under his guidance, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete” (Jn 15:11).
Our Lord also taught us by example about the relationship between love and obedience. Though he is God, he obeys Mary and Joseph (Lk 2:51) because he loves them. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ begs that the chalice of suffering be removed, but he concludes his prayer in loving obedience to the Father: “not my will, but Thine, be done” (Lk 22:44).
The law of Christ as we know it through the teaching of the Church must not be understood as a mere collection of rules and regulations demanding servile obedience under the threat of punishment. The law of Christ is the law of sacrificial love and the way to true happiness in freedom.
It’s hard to be threatened by the promise of Christian joy — unless, of course, we are threatened with its loss by our indifference, presumption or neglect.