Fiddler on the Roof gives us one of the most realistic, tender moments of cinema when Tevya asks his wife, “Golde, do you love me?” The whole musical poses this question in a variety of ways. It portrays an arranged marriage of 25 years, young people with far more romance than prospects, and the question of how parents must juggle their love for children whose commitments clash with their elders’ beliefs and traditions — all in the midst of persecution. After considering her 25 years of washing, cooking, bearing children and laboring beside her husband, Golde answered Tevya, “I suppose I do.” It was a well-thought-out response. With no stars in her eyes, Golde’s graying hair and calloused hands, her constant awareness of him and their children served as the evidence that verified her answer.
One of the unique features of today’s Gospel is that Jesus speaks for the first time of the disciples’ love for him. Previously he’s told his disciples that he is the way, the bread of life, the light of the world — all descriptions of himself that speak of what he wants to offer them. Jesus often called his disciples to believe in him and to trust him, but now he gets to the deep, interpersonal level of loving him for who he is. The only other time in the Gospels that Jesus speaks of disciples’ love for him is after the resurrection when he asks Peter if he loves him (John 21:15-16).
Jesus says his disciples demonstrate their love for him by keeping his commandments. On first blush, that hardly sounds like the Jesus who talks about mercy rather than sacrifice, who worried far less about the letter of the law than the spirit. But, we need to remember the context: This conversation began with matters of the heart not the law.
When Jesus talks to his disciples, to us, about loving him, he’s talking about something more than ordinary friendship, even more than familial commitment or love between spouses. When we pay attention to the broader context we realize that he’s talking about our loving him the same way he loves the Father. The love between Jesus and the Father is a mutual devotion born of their identification with one another. In Jesus’ relationship with the Father, obedience has nothing to do with rules. It’s about loving one another and sharing the same desire.
An intense feeling of grace is usually as fleeting as it is real but as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s song explains, “Love changes everything.” That’s what Jesus is talking about in this reading. He’s not telling the disciples to obey rules, he’s inviting them to share his heart. The opening line of today’s Gospel is, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” That’s a request for love. All that Jesus did in his life was aimed at that one thing: to entice humanity into falling in love with God, and the way to do that is through loving him.
Today we might picture Jesus singing Tevya’s words and asking us, “Do you love me?” For Jesus, love is the only thing that matters. Loving him includes accepting him for who he is and what he offers. As he says in this reading, loving him brings us into the realm of his Spirit and allows us to share his own perspective and desire. In the opening line of this reading Jesus could just as well have said, “If you love me you will love what I love and want what I want.” Keeping his commandments is a matter of the heart, a heart willingly invaded by God.