This weekend we hear probably one of the most challenging teachings that Christ has given us. He speaks to us very concretely about the law of love, and he gets very specific, doesn’t he?
Our Lord is specific, I think, because he knows that it is tempting for us to let the words “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Be good to those who persecute you” run over the surface of our hearts but not really sink in, not let them convict us. When our consciences start to sting a bit, how easily we can find ourselves saying things like “Well, I’m basically a good person.” or “I’m not as bad as so and so.” Whether it is our pride or fear of condemnation or reluctance to change – how quickly the defenses can go up, and soon we start thinking about all the other people who Jesus must be talking about in this teaching.
So before we go any further, I think we need to let our guard down. And we can because we remember that Jesus Christ comes not to condemn us but to save us. He comes that we might have life and have it abundantly. He comes as our redeemer and our creator – he knows what we need, he knows how we are made, he knows what will bring us peace and happiness and blessing.
With confidence let us open ourselves to this teaching today praying, asking: “Lord, we want to stand in the light of your truth, in the light of your teaching, even when that means that our failures and our sins will be revealed. Show us how to examine our consciences well, so that we can leave behind anything opposed to your will. We want to follow your commandments. We do not want to settle for the ways of this world, we want to learn your ways, we want to follow your law of love. ”
Now, with prayerful trust, we are ready to hear what Jesus teaches us about the stunningly high moral standards that are required by the law of love. What does he tell us?
It is unacceptable, Christ says, to write anyone off. No one can be dead to us. Is there anyone with whom we are not on speaking terms? Maybe they injured us, or maybe we injured them. There was a break: maybe it was sharp and immediate, maybe there was just a slow parting of ways.
So many families and friends are divided. People just decide that they are done with one another. They move on, pretending that another person does not exist.
Now this does not mean that we should submit to behavior that does harm to our spiritual, psychological, or physical health. But only the behavior can be rejected. Never the person. As followers of Christ, as Christians, the law of love requires we can never disown or repudiate another person. We always must seek reconciliation. That is the bar, that is the standard that we are all, as followers of Christ, called to uphold.
Further, Christ teaches us that it is a serious sin to be spiteful, scornful, or malicious toward one another. To say “you fool,” he says, is a grave sin! To think of ourselves as superior to others, to look down upon them. To think ill of others – or to wish any ill upon them. To be happy or content when they suffer. To be harsh and cruel in our thoughts when they do not do as we would like or as we think they should. To not give people the benefit of the doubt, to make harsh assumptions about their motives or intentions. The law of love, Christ says, forbids any uncharitable thoughts and actions. As St. Paul says so beautifully in another place “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Further, Christ is clear in his teaching that the law of love requires that we not use or manipulate others in our fantasies for our own pleasure. Jesus teaches us that we injure others when we imagine actions or words or circumstances that would be harmful to them, or turn them into mental slaves of our desires.
So yes, it is wrong to fantasize about bad things happening to our bosses or people who cut us off on the road, or anyone for that matter. It is wrong to fantasize about romantic encounters that don’t respect the dignity of the other person or the commitments of our lives such as marriage or holy orders. And yes, it is wrong to spend time consumed with angry and resentful imaginings about another person, beating up on them and yelling at them and punishing them, thinking of all the things we would say to them and how we would tell them off.
The law of love, the command to love your neighbor, does not cease to be a command inside the privacy of the mind or heart. No. Jesus teaches us that the law of love applies with greatest rigor within the mind and heart, since it is in the mind and heart that all actions find their origin. The law of love requires of us a purity of mind and heart, a consistent and persistent willing of the good for all those we meet throughout the day.
The bar is so high. So high! Does that mean that we freak out and go to confession every other day? No, of course not. But maybe once a month. We know that God is merciful and loving and patient, but we also know love is the law for us!
Fr. Robert Barron recently described Catholic moral teaching so well. In an article titled Extreme demand, extreme mercy, he wrote:
“The Catholic Church’s job is to call people to sanctity and to equip them for living saintly lives. Its mission is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold or people with good intentions; its mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue. Are the moral demands… extravagant, over the top, or unrealistic? Well, of course they are! They are the moral norms that ought to guide those striving for real holiness."
"The Church calls people to be not spiritual mediocrities, but great saints, and this is why its moral ideals are so stringent. Yet the Church also mediates the infinite mercy of God to those who fail to live up to that ideal (which means practically everyone). This is why its forgiveness is so generous and so absolute. To grasp both of these extremes is to understand the Catholic approach to morality.”
Which, I think we could add, is the approach that is patterned on the teaching of Christ himself.