When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22: 34-40
The Gospel from the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time has been rambling around in my brain for the past couple days. It started Sunday when I read the Holy Father’s address at the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square on the “Great Commandment.”
Then I went to Mass, quietly minding my own business, and the priest told me how challenging this commandment is and how I couldn’t always trust my feelings and my mind started working overtime and I realized that I live in a world that is terribly misinformed in matters of love. Which isn’t to suggest I’m an expert.
What does it mean to love? What is love? Loving God seems like a no-brainer. After all, how could I not love the source of all that is good?
But part B of this commandment is the tricky one. How am I supposed to love so many people I encounter who, frankly, don’t seem all that loveable? The commandment suggests I can – and I must.
How? By finding love?
Our culture generally defines love in three ways, which often do not overlap.
Definition one: Love is cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy, makes you feel happy.
Definition two: Love is all about the interaction of male and female hormones, meeting someone attractive who can satisfy every carnal passion.
Definition three: Love is suffering and sacrifice, making oneself miserable for the sake of another, risking death by slaying a dragon to save a damsel in distress.
Each of these definitions depends on the “attractiveness” of the one I love: A warm puppy, the love of my life, someone so wonderful I would die for them.
But the commandment says to love others as myself. Not just some others. Not just others who are nice to me. Not necessarily people I like.
Yes, I’m called to love people I don’t like. And this turns our cultural perceptions upside down.
As anyone who watches prime-time television can tell you, liking someone precedes loving something. You like first and if that goes well, you progress to love. (This requires very little time in some television shows and movies.) But the commandment requires me to love my neighbor and there isn’t any mention of the neighbor’s likeability or fairness or honesty or beauty.
Can I love someone I don’t like? Absolutely…and it may not be easy, pleasant, warm and fuzzy. It may be downright unpleasant at times.
A nurse bathing a cranky old patient is showing love for the other; it is hardly a “good time.”
A parent demanding a child eat his green beans and finish his homework is showing love – but likely doesn’t like the child in the midst of the tug and pull of parenting.
A wife may not be feeling warm and fuzzy toward the husband who shows up an hour late for dinner – but still loves him.
I have never accepted the contention of some spiritual directors that feelings don’t matter and can’t be trusted. Feelings can be unreliable, but they are real to the extent that they can spur actions or freeze us in inaction.
But I have come to believe that love transcends feelings. I can demonstrate love even when my feelings, my emotions can’t like and tell me to flee something uncomfortable.
I must love. Sometimes that means doing what is best for someone I don’t like and by any objective measure is unlikeable. Frankly, there are some rather unlikeable people in my life – even in my extended family. But I have come to love them just the same.