The commandment of Jesus is fairly direct and seemingly simple: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We are called to understand what Jesus means by this directive. A commandment carries very particular weight and demands. Jesus seems to place this as the sine qua non of discipleship. If we don’t do this, then we aren’t his disciples. This demand to love, then, comes with the same divine instruction as does the Decalogue. Yet seldom do we ever go to Confession and say that we have failed to love the other disciples of Jesus. We might mention a failure in responding in a loving way to a spouse, parent or child, but we would never say that we have failed to love those outside of our immediate circle.
Loving within the small confines of the group is a mandate of Jewish law. It is hard to tell if Jesus takes this law to another extreme here, though in other Gospel passages it seems that Jesus calls us to a love of all who are created in the image and likeness of God.
Fundamentally we define love – Christian love – as the intention of the salvation of the other. The primary objective of the Sacrament of Matrimony is to love the other to eternal life. Two people get married so that they can lead – perhaps even drag – each other to heaven.
While there are some particular expectations in being of service to one another and in tending to the immediate material needs of others, that is not at the forefront of this instruction from Jesus. The call to love must go much deeper.
If we take love at face value – to intend the goodness of the other – then the desire that the other share in eternal life should be a natural consequence of that love.
Over the past several decades we have abandoned the conversation, and thereby the reality, that not all people go to heaven. As the notions around eternal life have become inane with images of harp playing angels sitting on clouds as the general notion of heaven, then the genuine desire to live one’s life understanding the consequences for eternity, have also become trite. Indeed, the very belief in an actual heaven, much less of an actual hell, have significantly diminished even among practicing Catholics and other Christians.
If there is no real consequence to love beyond my immediate gratification or satisfaction – no matter how altruistic – then there is also no real consequence to being non-loving. If it is all the same and we either all go to heaven, or we all simply die, then I do not really need to love the other.
This cuts to the core of the modern problem. It is harder to imagine or to exercise genuine love because it carries no real or eternal consequence. We tend to treat love as merely an emotional or guttural response to attraction or to feeling loved. When we “fall out of love” we cut ties and move on with our lives.
We are called to love to the point of suffering and death. It is true that all of us know wonderful people who have been married for decades and have carried one another through all of the struggles in life and practice their faith together and lovingly and longingly desire to be united together in heaven. This is a glimpse of the love that Jesus commands us. We must also extend and expand that sense of love beyond our immediate circle of family and friends to all of humanity.
We are called to love one another so much that our own life matters less and that we desire the salvation of the other even more than of our own. That is love.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.