This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 18:15–20:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Love is all around us. Love is in the air. Love can make you happy. Love is a many-splendored thing, whatever that means. All you need is love. We get to hear a lot about love in our popular culture, much of which is sappy nonsense, but thoroughly entertaining sappy nonsense. If love was as easy as pop songs and rom-com movies make it out to be, we’d have been redeemed the first time someone pulled strings across a box and strummed out a tune. We want to believe that love is easy, without any hard work or real responsibility, and that illusion has real-world consequences.
For instance, it even affects how we read scripture. In today’s second reading, Paul writes to the Romans that love is the fulfillment of the law, which can be summed up in Jesus’ exhortation to “love your neighbor as yourself”:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.
Whew! Well, that’s easy enough. All we need to do is to generate warm fuzzies towards everyone we know, and that’s good enough. Right? Well, no, and our other readings today make that clear, even if our understanding of love may be anything but.
What is love as Paul understands it? It helps to understand that English is oddly limited in expressing this properly. We use the word love for a wide range of emotional responses, from enjoyment of a fast-food product to romantic ideals and almost everything in between. It’s non-specific, and therefore largely meaningless except as a slogan for passions that have little to do with exalting one’s neighbor.
The Greek language of the Septuagint and the New Testament makes the point much more clearly. Paul wrote of agape (caritas in Latin), a self-sacrificing love that put others equal to or above one’s self. That is distinguished from philia, a brotherly or comradely affection; storge, familial love; and eros, sexual attraction. Agape is the love within the Trinity, and the love God has for us and wants us to have for Him. It is the root of the Lord’s meekness, so well expressed by Jesus on several occasions, with his putting aside of His power in order to help us toward salvation. Agape resulted in the son of God being sacrificed for the salvation of all those who accept the Lord in their hearts and repent of their sins, and express agape to others.
When one grasps that difference, Paul’s exhortation here becomes not an escape hatch, but a challenge. It’s not enough, Paul teaches, to keep the commandments in practice. His brethren have to keep the commandments in their hearts too, by expressing agape love toward their neighbors.
So love in this sense is clearly not eros, despite its near-supremacy in our popular culture. Notably, as our other readings teach us today, it’s not philia either. The people of God have a positive duty to teach the law to others in agape love, God warns Ezekiel. Those who receive His word will be held responsible for failures to engage:
If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.
Here too it is not enough to have warm fuzzies for our neighbors, or even to befriend them while remaining silent to their sins. This cuts against our popular culture too, in which philia gets defined in morally relativistic terms. In the words of a 1960s self-help book that defined a generation, I’m OK, You’re OK. We are expected to keep our mouths quiet about sin and refrain from expressing truth, even among self-identified Christians, in an age where objective and moral truths no longer get recognized. Often, we hear people use Jesus’ famous exhortation Judge not lest ye be judged to scold people into silence, to keep their mouths shut and fail to evangelize in agape love.
That doesn’t jibe with today’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus outlines precisely how to gently fulfill the mission of Ezekiel with agape. At no time does Jesus advise His followers to ignore the problem and let people sink or swim on their own, even though it’s clearly the easiest option. This reading, in which Jesus instructs the church to shun an unrepentant member after numerous loving instructions, puts paid to the popular conception of Judge not, which was a reference to the arrogance of men in assuming the Lord’s role in final judgment of souls, not of actions in this world.
However, that does not mean attacking or demeaning people, either. Agape does not mean using hostility or anger, because neither of those are love in any sense. We are all sinners in some form or another, even when we have repented of it, a truth that should break our hearts open for others still trapped by sin. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, if we have not agape love in our hearts and words, then our instructions on truth become like a ringing gong or clanging cymbal — and the truth will never be recognized.
It’s far easier in these cases to stick with philia and to stay silent, or to give up on a loving approach and simply yell and attack. Agape calls us to shun our comfort zones and evangelize to the truth in love, even though we may end up reviled because of it. That is the definition of love in the scriptural sense: the self-sacrificial nature of loving our neighbors as ourselves, of loving our enemies as our neighbors. They are all children of God who need to hear the truth spoken in love as though it comes from God Himself … because, in the end, it does. All we can be — the best we can be — is to pray that we become instruments of His will.
Maybe this is more like “Love is a Battlefield,” eh?
The front-page image is Pat Benatar in “Love is a Battlefield,” circa 1983 from MTV. Currently on display on YouTube.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.