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Our Love of Others

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The subject of our present reflection is on our love of others.

It is Christ Himself who used the expression “The New Commandment”. As you know, He gave His long discourse at the Last Supper. So important is this term “New Commandment” that on its proper understanding depends in large measure a true appreciation of the New Testament.

We correctly distinguished the two testaments as the Old and the New. We know that the dividing line between the two testaments is the towering fact that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Surely God becoming man is very, very new. Once become man, God established a new covenant. Not only as He had in the Old Testament with the Jews, but with the whole human race. A covenant as we know is a sacred contract where each side in the contract both makes a promise and expects something in return. On God’s side this meant the outpouring of blessings in the New Covenant far above and beyond anything known under the Old Covenant. On our side it means, present tense the practice of greater sacrifice out of love for God, that had ever before been required since the dawn of the human race. New Testament Scripture as we call it, is filled with evidence of God’s special love for man, shown by the Incarnation. It is also filled with evidence of God’s expectations of man in the practice of virtue. The more God gives, the more He expects. He demands greater self-sacrifice especially in the quality of our love of others which Christ mainly came into the world to teach us by word and example. We know that these others are persons whom God in the person of Christ showed how much He loved even unto death. Who are those others? My friends they are you and I.

So much by way of introduction. As we have been doing, we shall look at this biblical theme, our love of others, first from the pre-Christian perspective of the Torah and then from the perspective of the Gospels and the teaching of the Apostolic Church.

Our present reflections therefore are on the love of others as taught and required in pre-Christian Judaism. This is of more than passing value, for two reasons. First that by way of contrast we might better appreciate what the New Testament is all about. That it is really new. And secondly and very practically that we be not misled by the practice of the absence of love outside of dedicated Christianity. In other words, the scandal to which we are mostly and mainly and constantly exposed is the lack of love in the modern world today. Am I clear? To make sure that we realize what God becoming man really means, in practice it principally means loving others with a charity simply unknown and I will add, impossible outside the ambit of the followers of Christ. Fundamental to Old Testament ethics, was the belief that whereas hatred comes from the devil, love comes from God. This is a contrasting theme throughout the Old Testament. Hatred is born of Satan, love is born of God. And again the Old Testament, where hatred leads to death, love leads to peace and everlasting life.

Already in the Pentateuch, as you know the first five books of the Old Testament, the Israelites were told, I quote, “You must not exact vengeance nor must you bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.” Unquote, Leviticus 19:18. However, not only in this context which we have just quoted, but throughout the Old Testament, one’s neighbor was understood to mean a fellow Israelite. Or at least someone closely associated with the Jews. It could be a resident in Palestine or a proselyte one who had converted from Paganism to Judaism; but never, never a Gentile as such. So true was this that Rabbinic literature, which means the learned commentaries on the Old Testament, shows that it was only after the second century before Christ that the Rabbis even began to recommend love for other people than the Israelites.

It is only against this background that the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on its full meaning. It is not a coincidence, that only Saint Luke, the disciple of the apostle to the Gentiles who narrates of all parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In his conversation with Jesus, a Jewish lawyer tried to outwit the Savior by posing the following question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ shrewdly answered with another question. “What is written in the law?” When the lawyer quoted from Deuteronomy and Leviticus about loving God and one’s neighbor, he was told by Christ, “Do this and life is yours.” Providentially the lawyer pressed his question. He asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Good Jewish lawyer: thanks for pushing Christ. The lawyer knew well enough that a standard Jewish understanding of neighbor, was a fellow Israelite. The lawyer also knew that Christ was teaching something more. Then came the parable of the Jew who fell into the hands of brigands. And after they robbed him and beat him up he lay helpless on the side of the road. That is the setting. Get the point of the parable? The main lesson that Christ wished to teach was, “who is my neighbor.” According to Jewish tradition, neighbor was a fellow, fellow Jew. So Christ tells this story and then he gets from the lips of the cynical Jewish lawyer the answer that has changed the history of the world. As Christ told it, a Jewish priest, then a Jewish Levite saw the man. The Jewish man was lying there and the Jews passed him by.

But a Samaritan came along and he took pity on him. He even provided for his lodging at a friendly Inn. Then came Christ’s question back to the lawyer. “Which of these three, do you think proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the brigands’ hands?” Are we clear? The whole point of the parable was to bring out in sharp outline that whatever neighbor meant in the Old Law, it has a very different meaning in the New. Christ asked him, “Which of these three proved neighbor to the Jew lying beaten up and robbed on the road?” The lawyer had no choice. What else could he say? It must be the one who took pity on him. The Savior’s closing statement summed up the contrast between a restricted love of others under the Old Law, and universal love under the New. Given this reservation, the practice of charity in the Old Testament, was not only prescribed, but made a condition for receiving blessings from Yahweh in return. Throughout the Torah, the practice of charity is described in great detail. In fact, this virtue is identified with justice or righteousness, implying the duty to give to those in need. And for Old Testament ethics, especially the poor, the widow and the orphan.

We are still in the Old Testament. The practice of charity towards one’s neighbor was to be done with kindness and humility. On this level, we Christians have not graduated from the Old Law: to practice charity with kindness and to do so with humility. What condescending charity we should practice. Where it is perfectly obvious we are doing a favor for someone.

Finally, still in the Old Testament, it was not only the individual Jew who was to practice charity, it was also the responsibility of the Jewish community. My dear Christian friends, this better be looked at more closely than I am afraid many of us do. We are to practice charity not only as solitary persons, we are to practice charity as societies. Parishes are to practice charity. Dioceses are to practice charity. Religious communities, qua communities are to practice charity. When I see, as I often do, sometimes upwards of a square mile of prime land, occupied by a religious community, and within walking distance of the Mother House desperate poverty, I want to shout, “Good God! Where is your love?”

So much for the Old Testament: my plan is to cover one half of what I have to share with you about our love for others in the New Testament as found mainly in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Then in our next conference we shall concentrate on Saint John. While the entire New Testament teaches the duty to love others, it is especially in the writings of Saint Luke and Saint John. Note I am saying two things.

Saint Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Saint John wrote the Gospel, three letters and the Book of Revelation. It is especially in these two sacred authors that we find the most precise doctrine on the subject of Christian charity. You might say this is not surprising. Saint Luke mainly addressed himself to the Gentile world: where Paganism was the state religion, whose rulers were notorious for cruelty. And those emperors were deified. Saint John wrote toward the end of the first century, by which time could be seen in stark contrast the difference that Christianity made in the character of human society. Try to remember the next sentence into the years to come. The followers of Christ loved not only one another, but even their worst enemies with an affection that could only be explained by the influence of more than human power at work in human hearts. Left to its own devices, the human heart is selfish. Left to itself the human heart is cruel. The principal moral miracle that God came into the world to work is the miracle of melting human hearts, and enabling them to love.

Now we go to Saint Luke. It is only this disciple of St. Paul who records the longest sustained narrative of the Savior on loving those who do not love us. You might say, “You could you have saved that for the end, and told us about loving nice people.” I could have, but I would not have been faithful to my Master. This narrative of Saint Luke comes immediately after Christ had given the four beatitudes and four woes. Matthew has eight beatitudes. Luke for reasons best known to the Holy Spirit who inspired him does not give us eight beatitudes, he gives us four beatitudes and four curses. Each is pronounced by Christ. Right after giving these four beatitudes, and the four threats which is four promises of happiness and four punishments, Christ warned the disciples not to expect to be accepted by the world. Then comes a series of new commandments on the practice of charity. Would you believe it? They amount to ten.

I hope this will not be our longest meditation. But if it is, it will be giving you a chance to practice what I am preaching.

First of all each commandment will be a mandate of Christ: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). This is the opposite of what we are naturally inclined to do. Raw human nature is kind to the kind, and loving to the lovable. What do you expect? Be hostile to those who are hostile to you.

Second commandment: “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who treat you badly” (Luke 6:28). Instinctively we treat others in the way they treat us. They smile and we smile in return. If they frown, you mean that I am supposed to smile at somebody who frowns at me? “Bless those who curse you.” To bless or wish well to those who wish us evil and to pray for those who mistreat us. This is not difficult; it is impossible to naked human nature. That is what grace is all about. That is why grace confers super, long pause, supernatural power. Moving the Rocky Mountains is easy compared to the heroic demand that some people can place on our charity.

Third commandment: “To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too. To the man who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic” (Luke 6:29). Christ is not telling us to ask for humiliation or foolishly expose ourselves to being robbed. A professor psychologist friend of mine tells me, “I would like to add one more to the Ten Commandments. Thou shall not tempt.” Not bad. We do not have to go around telling people, would you please slap me? Nor is Christ denying the right we have to keep our good name or personal possessions, which we have a right even to defend. But the Savior is indicating the readiness He expects of his followers to follow Him in bearing insults and injuries for the sake of His name.

Fourth Commandment: “Give to everyone who asks of you and do not ask for your property back from the man who robs you” (Luke 6:30). Again Christ is not saying we should blindly give to anyone whatever he asks for. Nor that we may not legitimately demand restitution after being robbed. But He is saying that our disposition of soul should be such that we see this as God’s providence. Whenever, remember that adverb, whenever anyone asks us for anything, mysteriously we may not be able to give exactly what we are asked for, but somehow, it is God making the petition. And so too, when we have given, or lent, or even have been robbed of something, that was rightly our own, what am I saying? Behind the thief, is God. What faith this takes. That nothing, absolutely nothing, that ever happens, everything is part of God’s mysterious providence.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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