Every once in a while, the world of popular music brings forth a song that can captivate our minds with its beautiful simplicity and can lift our yearning souls heavenward. Jacques Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” is such a song. The melody is easy enough to grasp after singing only a few bars, but it is the lyrics of the 12 short stanzas that touch us deeply:
If we only have love
With our arms open wide
Then the young and the old
Will stand at our side.
If we only have love
We can melt all the guns
And then give a new world
To our daughters and sons.
Then with nothing at all
But the little we are
We’ll have conquered all time
All space, the sun and the stars.
Some critics might think that the words of this ballad are trite and the melody monotonous. But no one can question the profundity and challenge of the sentiments expressed, sentiments that reflect the message of today’s readings.
The law of biblical Israel has often been erroneously characterized as legalistic. Today’s passage from Exodus, taken from the section of the book that contains covenant law, paints an entirely different picture. It depicts a nation concerned with its most vulnerable members. We should remember that this was a patriarchal society, where those with no male patron had little, if any, legal protection. In Israel, three such vulnerable groups were the widows, orphans and aliens. Here they represent all vulnerable people in need of protection.
The reading contains a warning against taking advantage of the less fortunate. God’s wrath will flare up against such exploitation; God will hear their prayers and will show them compassion. It is largely because of such passages that the church’s writings about social justice in the 1960’s used the phrase “preferential option for the poor.” This phrase must be understood within the context of the covenant. As covenant partners of God, we have the serious responsibility of caring for the disadvantaged covenant members among us. If we fail to do so, God will side with them. In other words, enjoyment of covenant blessings will be ours “if we only have love.”
The Gospel account is well known. A lawyer, an expert in interpretation of the Law, asked Jesus which of the current 613 prohibitions and prescriptions was the greatest. Well versed in his religious tradition, Jesus quoted two passages: “You shall love the Lord your God” (Dt 6:5), and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). That he knew the Law was not remarkable. What was astounding was the way he linked these two prescriptions. He placed love of neighbor alongside love of God. In fact, he insisted that “the whole Law and the prophets [the entire religious tradition] depend on these two commandments.”
The psalm lists some of the reasons for loving God. God is our strength, our rock, our fortress, our deliverer; God is our shield, the horn of our salvation, our stronghold. God cares for us as no other can care for us, and so we love God. But why should we love our neighbor? What does that person do for us? And who is our neighbor? (In Leviticus, neighbor refers to other Israelites, other members of the covenant community. Jesus will ultimately expand the meaning of the term to include those outside the community as well.) We are to love others, because with them we are in covenant with God, and we show our love for God by the way we love them.
For the Thessalonian Christians, Paul was an example of one who loves both God and neighbor. In his love of God, he unselfishly poured out his life for those for whom he ministered. Without being specific, he applauded the Thessalonians for imitating him and the Lord as they “became a model for all the believers,” presumably in the way they loved God and others.
The words of Jacques Brel could be heard as a clarion call to create a new world. This world will be the kind of covenant community depicted in Exodus; it will be the reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus. The world envisioned by these readings is a world in which we warmly embrace the young and the old, rather than exploit them for our own purposes. It is a world in which we bequeath peace and prosperity to the next generation, rather than war and the debt that it incurs. It is a world in which we recognize that despite our own lowliness, the power of God can work within us to create something marvelous. We will not be limited by the confines of time or space; we will find our place in the vast scope of creation along with the sun and the stars. By the grace of God, we can really accomplish great things, “if we only have love.”