I have an acquaintance whose stance on social and political issues appalls me. He is so strident that, almost every time we meet, I am shocked by his ability to surprise me with statements even more offensive than his previous claims. At times, he is so irrational that I suspect he’s playing a practical joke; unfortunately, he is always perfectly serious about his extremist, off-putting opinions.
I have learned that no amount of factual data nor compelling logic will dissuade him from his intransigent viewpoints. There are times when I can barely tolerate being in his presence. This leads me to wonder whether it is possible to fulfill Jesus’ command of love. How is it possible to love someone who is unflinchingly offensive on a chronic basis?
This is an issue that each baptized person must face: how can one love someone who makes herself or himself unlovable? I’d like to propose three (easy) steps toward reaching a faithful resolution to this issue.
Firstly, it is necessary to understand the meaning of the word “love” when it is used in the Scriptures. In western culture, “love” usually means attraction, desire, or emotional attachment; none of these meanings are appropriate to the scriptural meaning of “love.” In the Scriptures, “love” means to behave in a responsible way toward others.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus said to his disciples, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” (Jn. 15:10) To remain in Jesus’ love means to keep Jesus’ commandments to love God and neighbor. Jesus says that responsible action toward God is to love God above all else, and that responsible action toward others is to love them in the way that God loves them. Obedience to these commands is the hallmark of a responsible disciple.
Loving other people, then, does not require that we find them attractive, or pleasant, or even likeable; loving other people requires only that we act responsibly toward them. For the disciples of Jesus, responsible behavior includes, but is not limited to, forgiveness, forbearance, mercy, trustworthiness, gentleness, and compassion.
Secondly, it is helpful to keep in mind that we do not have to manufacture virtue ex nihilo. Every baptized person can easily afford to be forgiving, generous, merciful, reliable, gentle, and caring because each of us has received these gifts in abundance from God. Jesus gives us an example of how to act virtuously toward those who don’t merit it; he was forgiving and compassionate toward those who persecuted him. Loving other people requires no more than giving to others what we have already received from God.
Thirdly, we can expect from others no more than we are prepared to give them gratuitously. The acquaintance whom I mentioned above is exceedingly free in giving unsolicited and unwelcome advice to others, and he is often in a state of agitation because his advice is rejected by those on whom he bestows it so willingly. He seems not to understand that his overbearing demeanor is the cause of his dissatisfaction.
Jesus said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Mt. 7:12) I might rephrase that statement to say, “You can expect from others what you give them first.” If you want other people to be responsible, merciful, and attentive to your needs, you are obliged to be responsible, merciful, and attentive to the needs of others on a habitual basis.
God always acts responsibly toward all people. God treats all people equally; God calls all people to repentance and faith. God neither gives preferential treatment to the just nor ignores sinners. God’s love for all people is the pattern for us to imitate in our love of others. God can be counted on to be God at all times; God’s People ought to be counted on to be godly at all times.
It is fully possible to love even the most unlovable of people. It is easily possible to fulfill Jesus’ command of love. Be a decent, responsible, and compassionate person, and do so for no other reason than Jesus commands it. Some people will choose to remain unlovable, but you will have chosen to fulfill Jesus’ command of love.