Is Your Love in Vain?
A Reflection on Matthew 16:24-28 - The Conditions of Discipleship
Rembrandt van Rijn, Moses with the Ten Commandments 1659. Oil on canvas
One of the most misunderstood of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue (ten words), is that,
“You shall not invoke the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes his name in vain. (Deuteronomy 5:11 NABRE)”
The translation of the word, “vain,” in Hebrew (שָׁוְא – shawv), is illuminating. It means, emptiness, nothingness, useless, to no good purpose. (Whitaker et al. שָׁוְא) Another way to translate the commandment is, “You shall not take up the name of God to no good purpose,” or “You shall no take up the name of the Lord your God for nothing.”
As a kid, when someone talked about this commandment, it was all about swearing. But there is so much more to the commandment. We should not take up the name of God, Christ, “for nothing.” The first time the name “Christian” is used in Sacred Scripture to describe the Church is in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles,
Then he [Barnabas] went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:25–26)
The world identified the Church with the name of God, Jesus the Christ. In thinking about this, to take the name of the Lord in “vain” is to call myself a Christian but fail to live up to the Lord’s commands.
Another of the many descriptive names of God in Sacred Scripture is, “The Lord is my Banner” (Yhwh-Nissi – Exodus 17:15). When we call ourselves, “Christian,” it is if we have lifted a banner which flies above us inscribed with the words, “Jesus is Lord.” When we take up this banner and then act un-Christlike, we have taken the name of the Lord in vain, we have taken the name of God up for nothing. It is to say I love Christ; yet in reality, that love is vain, empty.
Bob Dylan is best known for his music but what many may not know is that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Although Bob Dylan is no paragon of virtue, his lyrics for the song, “Is Your Love in Vain,” really gets to the issue of love versus empty vanity. He writes,
Do you love me, or are you just extending goodwill?
Do you need me half as bad as you say, or are you just feeling guilt?
I’ve been burned before and I know the score
So you won’t hear me complain
Will I be able to count on you
Or is your love in vain?
In the Gospel today, Jesus is telling Peter, and the rest of the disciples, the cost of discipleship. He tells them,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NABRE)
He is asking the disciples; He is asking us, are you willing to “come after me” or “is your love in vain”? Is your love empty, nothing, void? Do you love me or just extending good will? Do you need me or are you just feeling guilty?
The Lord tells us that to love Him is to deny our wants, our desires, our selves, when they conflict with His will. Will we open ourselves to allow Jesus to truly be the Lord (Latin – dominus) of our lives. Will we empty ourselves (Kenosis) and allow Him to fill us (Theosis)? Is Jesus truly Lord of our life or is our proclamation of love in vain, empty? Can we declare that the Lord is my banner without denying ourselves in order to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh?” (Romans 13:14 NABRE)
The Lord tells us that to “love Him” is to take up our cross and follow Him. Can He count on me when the going gets rough, when others ridicule my faith, or when wearing the name “Christian” is uncomfortable? Does my life bear witness to the name, Christian, or is my love in vain?
Dylan at the end of the song asks the question, “Are you willing to risk it all; or is your love in vain?” Jesus tells us in the Gospel today,
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matthew 16:25–27 NABRE)
Jesus is asking us to risk it all, even to the giving of our life. What is there to be afraid of? There is nothing we can give in trade for our life that will put off eventual death. God, however, has ransomed us all with the priceless blood of Jesus. We “have been purchased at a [very high] price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). He is also telling us that it is worth it. Though the world will hammer home that death is the end, it is not. Jesus is risen! Therefore, Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel should not scare us but foster tremendous hope. This world for the faithful, with all its struggles, is not the end. Jesus tells us in the Gospel,
“there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28 NABRE)
Many who stood before Jesus that day, would be redeemed through the cross and would indeed experience death but not die. St Chrysostom would preach on this passage. He has Jesus asking us,
“Why are you afraid … as you hear of death? Then you will see me in the glory of the Father. If I am in glory, so are you all. Your interests are no way limited to the present life. Another sort of condition will take you up, a better one.” (ACCS Matthew 14:28)
We are called to love. Jesus tells the disciples in the Gospel of John what love is, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NABRE) Are you willing to risk it all or is your love in vain? Jesus tells us in the Gospel that there is no other path to eternal life. Knowing this, our love of our Lord Jesus Christ is never in vain; yet, for us,
“The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.” (CCC 2015)
So, deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow the Lord. There is no other way, there is no other truth, and outside of Jesus, there is no life. (John 14:6) Jesus’ love for us is not in vain, therefore do not take up His name in vain, for nothing, but take it up as your banner!
Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000. Print.
Dylan, B. (n.d.). Is your love in vain? https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/your-love-vain/. Retrieved August 4, 2022, from https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/your-love-vain/
New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. Print.
Simonetti, Manlio, ed. Matthew 14-28. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002. Print. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS).
Whitaker, Richard et al. The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament: from A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles Briggs, based on the lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius 1906: n. pag. Print.
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