A few years ago when I was working in a small rural parish, young man stopped me on the street and said, ‘Father, you know the way when you’re talking at mass on Sunday?’ I said, ‘Yes?’, ‘Well’, he said, ‘I think the only thing you should be telling us to do is that we should be loving each other, not about all the other stuff.’ And with that he just walked away. He didn’t even give me a chance to respond to him. Another man said something very similar to me at a wedding one time. I was thinking afterwards about what he said, and of course in one way he is absolutely right. The most important thing that we are asked to do, is to love one another. The Lord said this was the most important commandment after loving God above everything. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ One of the lines in the second reading says, ‘Owe one another nothing except the debt of mutual love.’
The difficult part is that we set out with great intentions but then people hurt us, or do us wrong, often right in our faces, and we find it so hard to forgive them. And so we pull back, and we say, ‘Yes, I will love my neighbour, but only certain neighbours’! Needless to mention that is not what the Lord meant. Since just about all of us experience these kinds of hurts, what exactly does it mean to love your neighbour?
It means first of all that we tolerate the people we find difficult. It doesn’t mean that we allow ourselves to be walked on, but it does mean that we show people respect, even if they don’t show us respect. It also means that we don’t wish them evil. We are asked to be prepared to forgive. Now that is not easy, and the Lord knows that very well, but God doesn’t ask us to do what is impossible, so it must be possible. What is key here is that our ability to do this comes from our relationship with God. If we stay close to God in whatever way we know how, then this difficult command becomes possible. It is never easy, but it is possible if we stay close to the Lord.
Most of us expect God to bless what we do: our lives, our family, our work. But we will not receive God’s blessing if we don’t make some effort to do what He asks of us, to love the people around us, to put up with them, to tolerate them. So we must be careful if we find ourselves hating certain people we live with or work with, and then turning and asking God to help us. We have to try to make an effort to love those around us and it is often the people closest to us who hurt us the most.
Loving people also means not being afraid to challenge them when what they are doing is wrong. That’s what the Gospel presents us with. If people are blatantly wrong we must challenge them to change. That is also part of what it means to love someone.
What about some of the extremists such as ISIS that we are hearing about on TV, who are involved in such terrible evil? Surely we can’t be expected to love them too? Well, if to love means to pray for them that they will wake up to the evil they are doing and repent of it, then yes we are meant to pray for them too. They are also people God created, even if they are very misguided and carrying out terrible atrocities in God’s name. Jesus forgave those who were killing him, while they were killing him, so we too are asked to pray even for those who carry out these terrible things, that they will change and repent of their ways. God does not want them to be lost forever any more than He wants us to be lost forever and that is what awaits them if they continue on the path of evil.
So going back to what the young man said to me on the street. Yes, I should be talking about our need to love each other, but this very ability to love others is something that comes from God, not from us. God is the first and greatest lover. The key to us being able to love the people around us is that we grow closer to the Lord. We keep our sights on him, we continually receive the Eucharist and listen to the Scriptures, because that is the spiritual food we need to be able to live the way of Jesus. If we only listen to the news and the world around us it is impossible, because it doesn’t nourish us. Only the Lord can give us the strength to love those who are difficult and even those who persecute us.