The Word Embodied
All You Need Is Love
“The greatest commandment.” (Mt 22:38)
Love. What verb involves more work? What noun is more invoked? That’s the problem. The word “love” means too much and too little.
It stands for (and justifies) just about everything: strong desires, imperial needs, an obsessive ache, murder, atrocity, mendacity.
People have done things for the “love” of God that God assuredly disavows. They have done things for love of others that have crushed the very objects of their obsession. They have done things for self-love that destroyed their very souls. Thus, the appeal to love is often not only trivial, it can be lethal.
I think there is no more misunderstood word than love.
It means sex to some. Thrill to others. Feeling wonderful to most. Love should fix things, change them, renew them. It ought to make us feel better about ourselves and the world. It must make life light and easy, a joy, an ecstasy, bliss.
As the song says, “Love is all you need.”
Imagine the embarrassment and confusion then, when such a word, in the ironic play of God and the transcripts of history, shows up as the summation of the law and the prophets.
Yes, Jesus said it.
He was responding to a question posed by a lawyer, of all people, who was wondering which commandment of the law was the greatest. His response? “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now at first sight this answer was not earthshaking in its originality. The great Shema (Webmaster note: pronounced sh’ma), a prayer that devout Jews recite every morning and night, is straight from the Book of Deuteronomy (Dt 6:5). This command to love God absolutely was to be “written on the heart” and drilled into the memory of every child. Mary, we may suppose, did her job.
The second part of the answer—“You must love your neighbor as yourself”—is lifted from Leviticus (Lev 19:18). What might have raised some eyebrows is that Jesus puts both of these commands on equal footing. The second is just like the first: our love of neighbor mirrors our love of God. Jesus, mind you, was not asked for two great laws, but he gave two as one. The entire will of God and purpose of our life is to love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.
So we’re back to love, that chameleon that hides in the hue of everything and disappears into any context available.
But not so fast. This love isn’t just anything. It involves heart and will, soul and life, mind and strength. It requires a covenantal fidelity. It makes demands. Love is not mere ardor; it is arduous.
The ordinances from the Book of Exodus are explicit enough on how love is exercised in human relations. We shall not wrong a resident alien. (Get that.) We shall not abuse widows or orphans. If we do, God’s wrath will be upon us.
If we lend money to the poor, we must not treat them as creditors or exact interest from them (now it is getting a little uncomfortable). If we take anything as collateral that a neighbor needs, we must return it before the sun goes down (so much for sweet romanticism).
With Jesus, love is even more irksome. Not only does he identify love of neighbor with our love of ourselves and of God; he makes it quite clear that love is serving others, even laying down our lives for them.
Anyone who thinks that love is an easy path should consult the “more excellent way” of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:31). It is a passage, often heard at weddings, that could profitably be read every day and night of married life.
What is love? Love is patience. It is kindness. It is not jealous or conceited, rude or selfish. It does not take offense, nor is it resentful. It is always ready to trust, to excuse, and to endure whatever comes.
Love, when we do it, is the eternal in us, what lasts of us. It is God, again made flesh, in our reciprocation, our giving back. Love is ultimately an affirmation, a kiss to the universe freely given.
True love is the wedding of faith and justice, the bond of transcendence with time. The love of God in whom we move and have our being is the same love made timely by our earthly care.
One day I received a note from someone who communicated a love to me that I found indubitable. She loved God first and, in God, all neighbors, herself, and even me. It was splendid and invincible. Although the gospel of Jesus inspired her, the words of Martin Buber expressed for her the holy mystery:
Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it. The accompanying feelings can be of greatly differing kinds.
The feeling of Jesus for the demoniac differs from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is the one love. Feelings are “entertained,” love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in us; but we dwell in love. That is no metaphor, but the actual truth.
In helping, healing, education, raising up, saving, love is the responsibility of an I for a Thou.
In this lies the likeness—impossible in any feeling whatsoever—of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man, whose life is rounded in that of a loved being, to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point—to love all.
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