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 ourselves? 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. Feelings and emotions are not to trust or direct our lives for sure..
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. People, boys and girls fall in love. Mothers and 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, a decision, not a feeling. It may begin with feelings but not supposed to stop there. Feelings come and go, commitments do not.
In today’s Gospel 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!”
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.
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 fulfilling my needs and 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 ourselves… 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. Let us think for a second what we do to the most vulnerable among us, the unborn.
We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. This is why the Church defends the unborn, the poor, the sick, and the elderly. It is the motivation for the just war doctrine, and why the Church opposes the death penalty.
I don’t care how you feel, Jesus says; just love your neighbor, all of your neighbors no matter who they are but 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 Book of Exodus in today’s first reading: deeds are more important than words and feelings.
Love, then, is not simply a nice feeling, it is a challenge.
The greatest and first commandment is to love God. How? With all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. The second commandment is to love our neighbor. How? As yourself. This is the divine vision and plan according to which we were ‘put together’ in our mother’s womb.
It is a great tragedy to meet individuals who live as though they understood the first and only commandment to be: I will love myself with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind. Let us pray to be preserved from this catastrophic corruption of our true nature.