Words on the Word
30. Sunday A
Exodus 22:20-26: You must not be harsh with widows or with orphans.
1 Thessalonians 1:5-10: With the joy of the Holy Spirit you took to the Gospel.
Matthew 22:34-40: You must love your neighbour as yourself.
The Gospel we have heard is often cited as a summary of Jesus’s teaching. There are good reasons for this. Who would contest that Christianity is about love? But what does it actually mean — to love?
In our world the notion has been simultaneously debased and too highly exalted. It is made banal when we say, ‘I love chips’ or when a trading company (like the one that recently sold me a razor) sends you a message professing, ‘We love our customers’. That’s a load of baloney.
By speaking of love so lightly, so irresponsibly, we empty it of sense. What is it then supposed to mean to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart’?
I said we encounter the opposite tendency, too, the one that portrays love as unreachable. This happens when we define love as a kind of ecstasy, like the one we may have known if we have ever thought of ourselves as being irremediably in love. At such times we feel we have wings. The whole world seems transfigured. But such emotion is rarely long-lasting. It feeds upon itself.
To be in love is to idealise the beloved while at the same time finding ourselves idealised, a most agreeable sensation. Sooner or later, though, reality breaks through. One discovers that the object of one’s love has bad breath, slurps, or snores; all the while one’s own inadequacies do not vanish but may even be accentuated by the closeness of another. When ecstasy ceases; when the technicolour projection turns into black-and-white and the film loses its sharpness, we might think: ‘So what I thought of as love was an illusion?’ We imagine love as subsisting in an ideal state. If the ideal bursts, we ditch the lot.
How many people drift from one relationship to another for this reason, without ever finding rest!
The love the Bible speaks of is of a different kind. It presupposes a firm option, first of all; then action harmonising with that option. The Gospel we have heard is Matthew’s. In Luke, Jesus orchestrates the commandment to love by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was not acquainted with the fellow he found bruised, helpless on the road to Jericho. His loving action was a matter of principle. Its nobility is evidenced thereby. The Samaritan recognised what Ibsen might call ‘an ideal imperative’ in the destiny of another human being.
How, then, do we proceed in order to learn to love?
The first step towards love involves benevolence, the avoidance of wrong. The terms are laid in our reading from Exodus. It is a matter of not bothering others. Does this not seem to us sufficiently sublime? Let’s think for a moment. How easily do we not seek our advantage or the advantage of people close to us by riding roughshod over more peripheral folks, present in the text as the widow, orphan, and immigrant? How easily do we not think that one who owes us something had darned well pay up by the deadline — and should he freeze at night, has he not his foolishness to blame? By all means: justice is a Biblical virtue, too, but it must be tempered by mercy. God bids us remember that we have been needy ourselves. He tells the Israelites: ‘You were strangers in Egypt!’ To each one of us he whispers: ‘Come on! You know well, be it in your heart of hearts, what it is like to feel rejected, abandoned, helpless. So give a hand to these people who are just like you.’
The next step towards love involves creative action for good. In this week’s collect (an element of the liturgy that always repays attention), we pray: ‘make us love what you command, so that we may merit what you promise’. We know we are starting to make progress when God’s commandments no longer seem to us restricting and heavy, when we see them as loveable goals. It is a high form of love to want what the beloved wants. Thus two wills are forged into one. When in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Thy will be done’, what is at stake is not fatalist submission but rather the recognition that God, who loves us with infinite love, knows better than I what is truly beneficial. That is why, when we strive to make his will ours, be it fumblingly in darkness, we find joy and peace. What is more, we are by grace turned into blessed tools for good in God’s hand.
Once our will has been rightly ordered we shall be able to rise towards the higher reaches of love. We shall see the beloved, then, as the embodiment of a personal mystery; we can love her or him in perfect freedom, with wonder and thanksgiving, chastely. When the Lord says, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ it is not primarily to indicate a degree of love, as if he had said, ‘love your neighbour as much as you love yourself”; he rather calls me out of my prison of self-centredness to encounter my neighbour as he or she is, not it terms of my expectation. To live in this way is to step into a new dimension. It makes life vastly more interesting.
We are told we can learn to love God in this way. How? By rejecting idols and projections, by seeing and encountering him as he is in himself, an eternally merciful, good, demanding, surprising God. To love in this way is to love actively and unsentimentally. Our feelings do have their part to play, of course; but as consequences of our action, not as prerequisites for action.
To learn to love in this way is to construct one’s house on solid rock. It is to start living, right here and now, a heavenly life.
That great monk, Father John of Valamo, who died in 1958, once told the author Tito Colliander:
Just look at the world’s beauty! Everything is full of the joy of the Lord. Don’t think paradise is something you only enter when you die. Paradise is all about you now, in so far as you love.
May it be granted all of us to know — with our intelligence, heart, and body — what these tremendous words signify.
Father John of Valamo (1873-1958), canonised in 2018. His ‘Letters from a Russian Monk‘ are a treasure.
Tito Colliander writes about him at length in his memoirs.