Having just come off of Valentine’s Day I’m caught thinking of how we understand love as Christians. Love is a difficult thing to grasp not only because of its mystery but because our culture and tradition has had a lot to say about it. God is love, we know. We may know the four Greek words for different kinds of love. Love is patient, it is kind. Ignatius said that love shows itself more in deeds than in words. Love is romantic. It is red and pink. And it can even mean a strong liking for something (“I love Jelly Bellys”).
But when we look at what Jesus taught about love and the example he showed, we find that love just doesn’t make sense to us. And it didn’t to many of Jesus’ critics and even followers. He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” What‽ It’s not human nature to do such a thing! Eat with sinners and criminals? Share a meal with hypocrites? Many of us good Christians would avoid doing such things. The scandal it would bring! I challenge you to consider how you can love someone who’s been convicted of abusing children. Or someone who never shows you any respect. Or your own child who runs off and disowns you. — It does not seem like human nature to love these kinds of people. Yet Jesus shows us that it is indeed these people who must be radically loved.
The Radical Power of Love
Jesus tells us the story of the prodigal son who essentially takes his father’s inheritance early and runs off to squander it. He might as well have said he wished his father were dead. After running out of money and starving he “comes to his senses” and returns home. He even rehearses what he will say to his father. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” True repentance or simply a plan of survival by again taking advantage of his father? We don’t know his true motivations. Nonetheless, when his father catches sight of him in the distance the scriptures say the father was “filled with compassion”. Not hatred. Not anger. Compassion. Our reaction may have been of anger, to give the boy a laborious job to “pay back” what he had stolen, to hold resentment, to lose complete trust, and to take away any responsibilities or honour he had. Rather, this father gives his son fine clothes, throws a party, feeds him well, and puts the ring of authority on his finger. It just doesn’t make sense. But that’s the point. Jesuit Howard Gray said, “God makes no sense if you use the criteria of this world.”
This story comes in a trio of parables in Luke 15 which includes one about a shepherd who leaves his flock of sheep to search for one lost one. That wouldn’t make sense to a shepherd. Then there’s the parable about a woman who spends day and night searching her house for a single lost coin, though she had other money—and she throws a party when she finds it. That might seem like a waste of time to us. These metaphors of love don’t make sense because we so often put conditions on our love. We default to the three R’s of resentment, retribution, and revenge. We don’t trust in the power of love.
Yet people trusted in the love of Jesus when they approached him for healing or forgiveness. After being crucified, Jesus kept loving and forgiving. Jesus trusted in the love of God. The kind of love the prodigal son’s father had was the kind of love Jesus exemplified when the Pharisees complained that Jesus treated sinners “like old friends” (see Luke 15:1-3, MSG) or when Jesus sent the disciples off on their own to preach the kingdom, despite their own flaws and foolishness. Jesus trusted in the power of love.
This is not blind trust. But for those who’ve experienced that reliability of love, the steadfastness of it, real love is ultimately rooted in the trust of a loving God. It endures all things, to use St Paul’s words. This kind of love does not default to mistrust, scepticism, reliability tests, or having to prove oneself. God needs no proof of anything in order love us. As Paul said, love “is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:5-6). The prodigal son’s father did not dwell on his son’s wrongdoing but rejoiced in the truth of his return and in the truth of his fatherly love for his son.
Four Qualities of love
Jesuit Anthony de Mello named four qualities of love. First, love does not discriminate. As the sun shines and the rain falls on the good and the bad, love is available for all. De Mello says, “Observe the marvelous change that comes over you the moment you stop seeing people as good and bad, as saints and sinners and begin to see them as unaware and ignorant.”
Second, love is gratuitous. Love gives and asks for nothing in return. God gives love freely to us despite the risk of that love being rejected. In other words, God loves us whether or not we return the love. Any return of love to the lover is our response to such a gift, but there is no expectation of that.
Third, love is unselfconscious. De Mello says, “Love so enjoys the loving that it is blissfully unaware of itself. The way the lamp is busy shining with no thought of whether it is benefitting others of not.” Love is just a way of being. Richard Rohr gives a metaphor of this. “Think of two old lovers,” he says, “quietly dancing to a soft clarinet and piano melody of the 1940s, safe and relaxed in one another’s arms, and unconcerned whether anyone is watching. The dance is completely for its own sake.”
The final quality of love is its freedom. Love leaves a person free, just as God’s love for us does not force a love response. Love, in other words, does not coerce or manipulate. De Mellow says, “Think for a while of all the coercion and control that you submit to on the part of others when you so anxiously live up to their expectations in order to buy their love and approval or because you fear you will lose them.” In the prodigal son story the father freely chose to love his son with abandon.
These four qualities, according to the criteria of the world, do not make sense. But they are the way God loves and the way we’re called to love. Jesus saw no other way.
Read Anthony de Mello’s Qualities of Love meditation here.
Listen to the podcast version of this post on the episode page, especially if the player below doesn’t work.
“I Will Arise”
Words by John L. Bell © 2002, WGRG, c/o Iona Community, Scotland, GIA Publications, Inc., agent
Music by Tony Alonso and Recording © 2008, GIA Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.