The Word Embodied
Letting Go of the Beloved
Those who find their life will lose it (Matthew 10:39).
In Matthew's account, Jesus tells us not to love our family members more than we love him. This text illuminates, I believe, the rather troubling formulation found in chapter 14 of Luke. Luke has it this way: “If you come to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and your own life too, you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Although the word translated “hate” in Luke is closer to the original Aramaic, John L. McKenzie reminded us that Aramaic actually had no words for “love more than.” Thus, the comparative softening of Matthew's “loving more than” is a fair alternative. It also provides an insight into the nature of human loves.
In scripture passages dealing with the claims human relations make upon us, at least two dangers are suggested. First, the beloved can become more important than God. Second, such love can become possessive.
If the totality of our love is exhausted by any created thing or person, then that “loved one”must become the anchor of our being, our purpose and fulfillment, our security and final hope. Sooner or later such a total object of our love becomes our idol, a false god.
But God must always be “more than” any creature of earth. If we turn a human person into a god, either that person will eventually possess us, or we will try to possess and use the fabricated god as an idol.
Psychologically this paradox makes sense, although not to the person under the spell of idolatry. If we say to another, “You're my everything; you're my meaning; I am nothing without you,” then what is left of us to give that person? Why would he or she even be bothered with us, if we are nothing without them?
Thus our love shatters because we are shrunk by the idolized creature without whom we would be nothing. Oddly enough, we also shrink the beloved; for there is a strategy in counterfeit love, always doomed to failure, which seeks control by investing all our attention. Parents thus suffocate the child who becomes their “everything.” Love-idols are functions of a craving inadequacy; but when they fail as our ”rock” or “security,” we come to hate them for betraying our expectations.
The same paradox applies to the way we love ourselves. If we make ourselves the absolute goal of our seeking, we bring ruin upon ourselves. Only when we die to such narcissistic illusions can we be fulfilled. Only when we take up the cross of true love—“laying down our lives,” sharing ourselves freely with our family and friends, not demanding that they be our gods or we be theirs—do we find ourselves.
If neither I nor you are God, but only God is God, then we may love each other freely, nonpossessively, and without jealousy. There is no question of domination or control. Then we know the greatest gift God has given us: the capacity to bestow our lives freely in covenants and promises to our dear ones, who even in eternity are loved in God.
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me and the one who sent me,” Jesus said. In this life and the next, when we so welcome each other, we truly love the God who dwells in us and yet is not reduced to us.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University