Love and Duty

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another. (Romans 13:8)

Have only one debt: love. Be obedient and law-abiding, so that all you owe your neighbor is love.

St. Paul makes things so easy for us. We have only one solemn duty to fulfill; we can let everything else go. It’s as if he said, “Don’t worry about exercising, except to train for a marathon.” Or “forget about school, except getting your doctorate.” Or “Just relax and watch tv, once you have built a chapel in the desert like Sidney Poitier in ‘Lilies of the Field.’”

Maybe we could say that human history has two kinds of eras. In the one kind, people constrict themselves so tightly that love has to teach duty how to behave. Everyone observes the basic laws of decency and religion, but joylessly. So love must enliven the dead routine of duty with its freewheeling fire.

Sidney Poitier OscarI’m actually just speculating about this, because I myself have never lived during such an era.

In the other kind of era, love gets so footloose and fancy-free, so unrestricted, wayward, and unfocused, that it becomes a kind of damp mop that picks up everything on the floor. Duty has to teach love its real business, has to help love get focused and organized, so that love can shine forth as something truly noble.

In the first kind of era, duty must learn that only love can really make it make sense. Why dutifully fulfill our obligations, if we have no love? But in an era like ours, I would say, love has to learn this: The only kind of love that really merits the name is dutiful, consistent, sober, humble, long-term love.

In the short passage of Romans we read at Holy Mass, St. Paul went on to review the second table of the Decalogue. Yes: all the laws of morality can be summed up with one word: love. Yes.

At the same time: Can the word ‘love’ really apply to anything that involves breaking any of the commandments? If I kill or defame or steal or cheat or lie or shirk or covet–can I say that I am loving? Can I do an injustice in the name of love? I don’t think so.

So: Let’s obey lovingly. And love obediently.