Fr. Charles Irvin
Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40
A fundamental theme that runs throughout the entire Bible is this: “God offers, we respond.” God’s offer of love for us is a given; His unconditional love is always offered to us no matter what. The result, however, is conditional. The result depends upon our response to His offer.
How, then, do we respond to Christ’s mandate that we love everyone as we love ourselves?
First of all, we should take it for what it is – a mandate, a command. It is something we must choose to do with little regard to our feelings. Feelings are important but feelings are not decisive. Convictions, things we are convinced of, are decisive; feelings are not. More often than not, acting on our feelings leads us down the wrong path and into trouble,. Then, too, we can be victimized by our feelings. We can feel sorry for ourselves and spend so much time pitying ourselves that we end up feeling like we are victims. We can imprison ourselves in a state of victimhood and seem unable to get our of our self-made feelings of depression. They can even lead us into a state of self-hatred.
At times, some feelings are good. But when it comes to giving ourselves to others in love we have to make decisions. No one can command you to have warm, fuzzy feelings toward another. Not even God command that of us. We cannot even tell ourselves to have nice, warm, loving and intimate feelings toward another. Even if we could, would it matter? No. It’s what we do that matters, not how we feel. But Jesus is not speaking here of emotions and feelings. He knows how absolutely fickle and unreliable feelings really are. Feelings come and feelings go as they wish, leaving us quite alone with ourselves after they have left.
“Falling in love” is a wonderful thing, even a beautiful things. Young boys and girls fall in love. Young mothers and young fathers fall in love with their newborn babies. Emotions of affection and feelings of love are beautiful things, the stuff of songs and poems. There is nothing wrong with them.
Jesus is telling us here that love is something we do. Love is a choice, a decision, a commitment to do things. That is why Jesus is commanding us to love others. It’s what we do to others, not how we feel toward them, that matters.
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. Perhaps this is another reason why Jesus commands us to act toward others in a loving way, regardless of how we feel about them. Love makes commitments – feelings 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 feelings of fondness for another person. It follows, then, that there is no sin in feelings of fondness toward another person. Virtue and sin are fond in what we choose to do with other people.
Recall with me now the Last Judgment account depicted in St. Matthew’s Gospel. That Last Judgment account is all about deeds – feelings are not even mentioned. 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 have feelings of sympathy toward me.”
Having good feelings toward others is nice, and many preachers preach a gospel of nice feelings. For them, religion seems to be a matter of feeling nice toward others, being polite and kind toward them. But isn’t Christianity something more than being nice or simply having nice feelings toward others? When did Jesus ever mention being nice toward others? Show me one place in the Bible where that was His teaching. The only thing that counted with Him was that the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, and the lonely and abandoned were sought out and we stood by them.
Jesus Christ is the ultimate realist. He commands us, He mandates us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We are to especially love those who are unlovable, those who are particularly shunned. He closes our little loopholes, our self-fashioned exceptions, and presents us with the most demanding of all Gospel messages, allowing us no compromises, no human “wiggle room.” It was a call from Jesus to us to get extremely serious about what we do, not what we feel.
Christ’s mandate was an utterly simple one, one with no complexities whatsoever. It was sort of like a new income tax code that some are proposing in which the return can be sent in to the Internal Revenue Service on a postcard – 15% of all household income with no deductions, no exemptions, no depreciation formulae, no wiggle room, one that’s simple, direct, straightforward and to the point.
I don’t care how you feel, Jesus says to us, Simply love your neighbors. Love them as your heavenly Father loves them. Love them, the good and the bad alike, with the unconditional love with which your Father in heaven loves them. Love all of your neighbors in what you do to them, in what you do for them, and in how you act toward them. All of those complicated and complex feelings of yours will eventually follow along. My religion, says Jesus, is a matter of what we do; it’s not a religion simply of nice feelings.