In a Peanuts comic strip, Linus once declared: "I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand!!" Linus isn’t alone. That’s why we see bumper stickers that read: "The more people I meet, the more I like my dog." That’s also why God has to command us to love. Indeed, as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel, to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves is the greatest commandment of all. You’ll note that we’re not commanded to love "humanity" in general. We’re commanded instead to love people- including the people we can’t stand. Including the people we like less than our dogs.
The type of love God commands is a decision, not a feeling. St. Thomas Aquinas defined it very well when he wrote, "Love is wanting what is best for a person and doing what you reasonably can to bring goodness and good things to that person."
But who is it exactly that we need to love? Perhaps more people than we might imagine. Make an effort sometime to think about all the people you meet during a normal day, and then consider all the different ways God might call you to love them. Elizabeth Browning’s poem began, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." She was referring to a romantic lover. But we might ask her same question, "How do I love thee," of all the people who cross our path in one way or another.
Some of us have spouses or children. If so, they are the ones who have the primary claim to our love. Charity, as always, begins at home. We need to love our children by giving them affection, attention, and guidance. We need to teach them virtue by example and pass on to them our faith in Jesus. We need to give them positive discipline while allowing them the freedom to be themselves.
Spouses call forth our friendship and affection. They need us to listen attentively and try to understand them. They need our cooperation and teamwork in raising children. They need us to focus upon their needs instead of being preoccupied with our own. They need our patience and compassion when they’re sick. They need our tenderness and empathy when they’re sad. They need us to fight fair, to forgive, and always try to reconcile when we’re coming apart at the seams. They need us to challenge them to be all that God created them to be, and they need us to give them space and support to become all that God created them to be.
Consider also the demands of love in our workplaces. In our dealings with co-workers and customers, love calls forth our honesty, courtesy, and patience. Love is collaborative, not selfishly competitive. Love doesn’t engage in negative water-cooler conversations. Love would have us prudently challenge our employer’s practices that neglectfully harm the environment, exploit others with deceptive advertising or sweatshop labor, or discriminate or harass certain employees. Love demands that we don’t become workaholics and neglect our families.
What about the people in our communities- such as neighbors, fellow school parents, people at church? Do we gossip about them with others, harming their reputations? Do we judge them harshly and act in an arrogant or patronizing way? Do we entertain racist or prejudicial thoughts and seek to exclude them or marginalize them? Do we harbor anger and resentment toward those who have slighted us, cheated us, ignored us, or harmed us? Love would have us be welcoming, inclusive, forgiving, humble people who use speech to build others up instead of tearing them down.
Let’s not forget our friends, frequent acquaintances, and those we spend free time with. Love would have us love them for who they are, and not what we can gain by our association with them. We are to love them and not use them. Also, we aren’t "fair-weather friends" if we are people who love. In addition, love demands that the time we spend with them doesn’t compromise our primary obligations to family.
Think about the people we meet while in our cars. Do we endanger them by speeding, driving aggressively, or by dialing our cell phones, applying makeup, or reading the paper while we should be focused on the road? Love dictates that we drive safely, courteously, and in accord with the law.
In addition to those we’ve mentioned so far, there are many others we may be called on to love- and who we may find it difficult and challenging to love: Adult children who’ve made poor choices; our parents who made their share of mistakes with us; the contractor who doesn’t keep promises; that annoying priest at church; ex-spouses with whom we’re not at peace; controlling or unpleasant in-laws; the inept or unfair boss; the needy friend or family member who wants more than we can give; the rude clerk at the sales counter.
How we love all these different people, of course, depends on the circumstances and the nature of our relationship with them. At times, love may demand that we challenge another’s behavior; love may demand that we set boundaries so others don’t become too dependent on us; love may demand that we swallow our pride. Love calls us to forgive when we’d rather resent; to include when we’d rather ignore; to change when we’d rather remain the same; to give when we’d rather receive; to say "yes" when we’d rather say "no;" to say "I’m sorry" when we’d rather make an excuse.
The Beatles sang "All you need is love," which makes love sound deceptively easy. But the demands of love, the greatest commandment to love, can involve our making some of the hardest decisions we’ll ever have to make. And make these choices we must, if we are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. It’s very easy to love others too little. But, to borrow a quote from St. Francis de Sales, "We can never love our neighbor too much."
(My book of daily meditations for Lent, to be published by Ave Maria Press in November, is available for pre-order: http://www.amazon.com/Daily-Devotions-Lent-Living-Gospel/dp/1594713634/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335995419&sr=8-1 )