In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells His disciples “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” Loving Jesus is intimately bound up in doing what He says.
Imagine a person living in feudal times pledging loyalty to a king. But every time the king issues a proclamation or promulgates a law, that person does the exact opposite or nothing at all. Moreover, the person actively works to sabotage the kingdom. He rips down official postings that contain the king's laws and penalties. He aids and abets the king’s enemies. The king would look upon these actions as disloyalty. When confronted by others, the individual professes to loyalty the king. “I am truly your subject, oh king!” he says.
However, almost as soon as these words are spoken, the professing subject again contravenes the king's laws. Soon, he stands before the king in judgment. The subject tries to make the same defense; he really was loyal to the king in his heart, he revered the king “deep down.” He felt it. The subject argues that his disobedience of the king's laws is not evidence of loathing the king. He argues that loyalty is more than obeying rules, it is a matter of the heart.
The wise king quickly calls out this faux duplicity of nature and equivocation of terms. The actions betray the man. There are not two selves acting, but one. The mouth speaks what is in the heart. The hands do what the heart desires. Loyalty is demonstrated in actions, not just fleeting private thoughts. Loyalty to the king means doing what the king says. The subjects cannot simply change the meaning of words out of whole cloth. They can certainly try. Yet, they will be dismayed when they hear another subject change the meaning of the word ‘hug’ to mean thumping another on the head with a blunt object. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander.
When the Lord Jesus says “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me,” we are meant to understand that our love for Him is evidenced by our obedience. This does not reduce grace to legalism, for it is ‘all grace’, as it were. Instead, it forces us to reckon with our own moves to rationalization and duplicitousness. We cannot have our cake and eat it, too. If we love Jesus, we will keep His commandments. If we do not keep His commandments, we do not love Jesus. To some, this sounds harsh and demandingly perfectionist. When we receive grace with humility, especially through the sacraments and Church teaching, we might see that what Jesus asks is not too far beyond nor too high above us. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can become holy. If we stumble, we can receive forgiveness and the strength to press onward toward our heavenly goal.
If Jesus is Lord and King of the Universe, then our loyalty to the King is demonstrated in our listening to what the King says and doing what He says to do. Voluntarism might raise some big-picture questions about this, but we can sidestep this problematic predication of divine action in favor of superior explanations, such as an intellectualist account. In any event, what we cannot do is redefine words to justify our actions. We show that we keep the greatest commandment by keeping the others. Not as mere blind rule followers, but as those walking in the light toward happiness.