There are some people for whom we simply cannot feel any love at all, or so we tell ourselves. Too much resentment, too much distrust… some people are just “too much” for us.
Take, for instance, a relative who is arrogant, self-centered, opinionated, and who is totally given over to his own pleasure and comfort. He thinks everyone else is stupid. We feel sure that when he dies and meets Jesus Christ face to face he will manage to tell Christ that he could have redeemed the human race in a much better way. He will likewise point out all of God’s faults and failures, particularly how God botched the job in creating human beings. At best we can only tolerate this sort of person. The greater the distance between us we feel, the better.
What, then, is the meaning of Christ’s mandate to us, telling us to love everyone as we love our selves? How can we possibly love such a person?
First of all, we should take it for what it is – a mandate, a command, something that has nothing to do with feelings. No one can command you to have warm fuzzy feelings toward another. Not even God commands that of us. We cannot even tell ourselves to do so. Even if we could, would it be worth doing? I daresay it wouldn’t. Even abusers of women tell us that they have powerful emotional feelings of affection for the women they abuse… along with overpowering lust, envy, jealousy and possessiveness.
No, Jesus is not speaking of emotions and feelings. He knows how absolutely fickle and unreliable feelings are. Feelings come and feelings go as they wish leaving us quite alone with ourselves after they have vacated our hearts, alone with the wreckage they leave behind.
Please don’t get me wrong. “Falling in love” is a wonderful thing, even a beautiful thing. Young boys and girls fall in love. Young mothers and young fathers fall in love with their newborn babies. The emotions of affection and the feelings of love are beautiful things,-the stuff of novels, movies, love songs, and poems. There’s nothing wrong with them. But they shouldn’t control us. Love is a choice, not a feeling. Feelings come and go, commitments do not.
In today’s Gospel (Mt 22:34-40) account, Jesus is talking about love as something we do, not something we feel. He knew full well that affection is something we feel, He looking for us to love. Love is a choice, a commitment to do things; that is why Jesus is commanding us to love others. It’s what we do for them, not what we feel toward them, that is the point.
I recently heard of a couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, their Golden Jubilee. A friend asked them how they did it. “Did you ever think about getting a divorce?” “No”, said the bride of fifty years, “I never thought about that. I didn’t consider divorce to be an option.” Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she added, “But a few times I have thought about murder!”
When two people marry they promise to act toward each other in ways they will not act toward anyone else. Feelings come and feelings go – we have little control over them. Love and commitments, however, are choices. Furthermore, as psychologists tell us, feelings can be shaped by the way we act. This is why Jesus commands us to act toward others in a loving way regardless of how we feel. Love makes commitments; feelings can follow along.
All of us have feelings of fondness toward others. Even pagans feel fondness and affection. So there’s no particular Christian virtue in feeling fondness and affection for another. Consequently, there is no sin in feelings of fondness toward another. Virtue and sin are found, however, in what we choose to do with other people. Which is why Jesus always placed His emphasis, not on how we feel toward others, but how we act toward them.
We need to pay attention to the Last Judgment scene depicted in Matthew’s gospel account. That last judgment all has to do with deeds – feelings are entirely omitted. God does not say: “I was hungry, and you felt sorry for me. I was naked, and you felt embarrassment. I was sick, and you had feelings of sympathy toward me.” All of which would have been simply nice. And many churches preach a gospel of nice feelings – religion is only a matter of feeling nice toward others. But Christianity is more than being nice or simply having nice feelings.
When did Jesus ever mention being “nice” toward others? The only thing that counted with Him was that the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, and that the lonely and abandoned were sought out and cared for.
Jesus Christ is the ultimate realist. He commands us, He mandates us to love our neighbors as we love our selves… even those who are unlovable. Perhaps He even means particularly those who are unlovable. He closes our little loopholes and presents us with the most demanding of all Gospel messages, allowing us no compromises, no human “wiggle room”. It was a call to get extremely serious about what we do, not what we feel.
And it was an utterly simple mandate, no complexities whatsoever. It’s sort of like the proposed new federal income tax that can be sent in on a postcard – 9% of your taxable income… no deductions, no exemptions, no depreciation formulae, no wiggle room – simple, direct, straightforward and to the point.
I don’t care how you feel, Jesus says; just love your neighbor, all of your neighbors no matter who they are and in how you act toward them. All of those complicated feelings of yours will eventually follow along. Religion is a matter of what you do, how you act.
Jesus isn’t inventing something new. No, He’s giving us the mandate of our Father in heaven, one that was expressed to us long, long ago in the Book of Exodus, the Second Book in the Old Testament. The challenge has always been before us, a challenge as old as the Bible, one that we just heard from the first Book of Exodus:
Thus says the LORD: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”
Love, then, is not simply a nice feeling, it is a challenge. [30th Sunday in Ordinary Time- A]