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What Kind of Love Is This?

Fr. George Smiga
April 28, 2013
John 13:31-33a, 34-35

Today’s Gospel is a sleeper. When we first hear the words of Jesus, they seem warm and comforting. But when we probe them more deeply they turn out to be a dramatic challenge. Jesus’ command to love one another at first seems a gentle and nurturing directive. But it is, in fact, a revolutionary expectation that can surprise us and, perhaps, anger us.

The command to love one another seems to capture a universal ideal with which all would agree. Who could be against love? Outside of a few tyrants and misanthropes, who would deny that love is what we want and loving is what makes life worth living? So we initially imagine Jesus’ command as an expression of a belief found in every culture and time. We all agree that we are at our best when we love family, friends, and country, when we love one another.

But there are two phrases in today’s gospel that betray this surface interpretation and pull us down into much deeper waters. The first is Jesus’ comment, “By this all will know that you are my disciples.”  Jesus seems to be saying that there is something in our loving which will set us apart, something that will make us different. But how can this be, if loving is what everybody is doing? Clearly, Jesus’ words reveal that he has a specific kind of love in mind, a love which is other than the love on which everyone agrees, a love which makes us distinctive.

This leads to the second phrase. The gospel tells us that Jesus gives this new commandment “when Judas had left them.” The commandment to love is given in the context of betrayal. Even as Jesus knows that Judas is on his way to hand him over, Jesus commands his disciples to love one another. And he doesn’t add, “Love one another except for Judas.”

Now it becomes clear that the kind of love Jesus commands goes beyond the love that everyone accepts, beyond the love of family, friends, and country. Jesus is asking us to love our betrayer. Jesus is asking us to love our enemy. Everyone would agree that it is a beautiful thing when you love the people who love you. Jesus is asking us to love the people who do not love us, to love the people who have hurt us. This is not an easy thing to do. It does, however, get attention.

Sean O’Malley, the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, created quite a stir last week when he told reporters that, as a Catholic, he could not support the death penalty for the surviving perpetrator of the Boston bombings. The Cardinal said, “We have ways of punishing people and of protecting society which do not involve killing those who have offended us.” The cardinal was expressing a belief in the value of all life, a love of all life. As Catholics, we love life—the innocent life within the womb, the guilty life of the criminal. He concluded by saying, “We must build a civilization of love or we will have no civilization at all.”

The love that Cardinal O’Malley was speaking about is not the love that everyone accepts. It is the love that Jesus commanded. It is the love for our enemy, the love for someone who has hurt us.

So do not become comfortable with Jesus’ command to love one another. It is a disturbing, countercultural command that asks us to show mercy to those who are guilty, to show respect to those who have hurt us, to refuse to do violence to those who have done violence to us. Speaking this kind of love in our society, would appear strange to some and nonsense to others. Many would ignore us or reject us for promoting it. But this much is sure. Were we to love in this way, were we to love as Jesus commands us, no one could doubt that we are his disciples.

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