Agape: Love of Wanting the Good of the Other

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 102; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

JESUS said to his disciples: ‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.

‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

HOW often do we hear the accusation: “Jesus speaks of love and yet the Church speaks unlovingly” or not being “nice” whether on hard issues like same sex attraction, IVF, abortion, death penalty or even the seeming trivial issues such as proper church etiquette? And because of this, church critics—and sometimes even ourselves—feel justified saying that we love Jesus but, not the church.

Today we heard in the gospel Jesus saying: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven.” It is certainly true that there is no other passage in the New testament that contains such a concentrated expression of Christian ethic.

This passage describes essential Christianity in action and at its centre is the word LOVE. All people, even those who do not come to Church, know that Jesus said this, and very often use this passage to condemn professing Christians like you and I for falling so far short of its demand. But maybe the Church—or even religion itself—is seen in a negative way because of our misunderstanding of the word “love”. And if there is a distortion of the meaning of the word—love in this case, that is where all the problem begins.

That is why we must go back to scripture. We must try to find out what Jesus was really saying and what he was demanding of his followers. If we must live the authentic Christian life, we must then first be quite clear as to what it is being asked of us. In other words, what does Jesus mean by loving, in general and loving our enemies in particular? Why is this important? Love is love, anyway, yes? Well, not really. Did you know that in Greek, there are four different words for love? There is the noun storge or stergein, words that describes the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent—family love if you like. There is eros and the accompanying verb eran—words that describe the love between male and female; there is always passion there. In these words, there is nothing essentially bad; they just simply describe the passion of human love. The problem is, eros is often gets confused with the idea of lust rather than love. Hence we get words like erotic or eroticism that are distortions of what the words really mean. Then there is word philia or philein. These are the warmest and best Greek words for love. It mean’s real affection, real love. It is the word of warm, tender affection, the highest kind of love.

But Jesus did not use these words. The original Greek used in our gospel is agape—a word that indicates unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill. If we then regard people with agape, it means that no matter what they do to us, no matter how they treat us, no matter if they insult us or injure us or grieve us, we are called to never allow any bitterness against them to invade our hearts. Instead, we are being encouraged to regard them with unconquerable benevolence and goodwill. Why? Because agape is the word for love which always seek the good—no, the highest good of the other. Agape or Christian love is willing the highest good for the other and doing something concretely about it. Love is something we do. It is not simply an emotion or an attitude.

This is also the reason why agape is compatible with not always being “nice”. Because we always seek the good of the other, we can still correct, admonish, discipline; to speak and act against evil. That is why we can—or rather should speak up strongly against sin and confront an evil, especially if being committed by those who are dear to us. Just think about our dads or mums disciplining us. Think about teachers who are being strict with their students academically and behaviorally. That is not hate. That is not being mean. On the contrary, that is love—call it tough love, yes, especially if we really mean the good of our children, family, friends, our students, our co-workers, our co-parishioners. Because, living out agape, we want everyone to be perfect just like our heavenly father. And we want everyone to share in the glory of our Father in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, we may not always seem to be lovable or seen as a “nice” person. But we can sure try our hardest best to live out this Christian love. And even if we cannot love as God does, in gratitude I can try—we can try. And that willingness to try to live out agape is perfection enough to satisfy our God, our Father.

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