We live in a very competitive culture, don’t we? This competitiveness is reflected, I think, in the popularity of today’s reality TV shows, in which people try to beat each other through raw power, manipulation, and humiliation. Just consider their names: “Survivor,” “The Biggest Loser.”
Don’t get me wrong: competition can be a good thing. The down side, however, is that it can make us think that life is all about getting ahead of others. This worldview turns us into very selfish people, who concerned only about our needs and our goals. We encounter this selfishness today when children, the sick, or the elderly are seen as burdens who get in the way of our plans or our lifestyle. We see it in the resentment, envy, and depression people struggle with today because they don’t think they’re getting everything they deserve. And we see it reflected in the fact that fewer and fewer people these days enter the “service” professions of teacher, nurse, or priest- jobs concerned with giving, instead of getting.
This selfishness can also affect our relationship with God. It makes religion and spirituality nothing more than an exercise in self-fulfillment and self-discovery. It reduces forgiveness to a therapy which we do only when we’re ready, and only so we can be at peace after having been hurt. It turns helping people in need into an effort to feel good about ourselves. And I heard a bishop recently complain that whenever he preaches about Christian sacrifice today, he feels a need to explain what its benefits are, because so many people are concerned only with “What’s in it for me?”
Such selfishness can make us lonely, because it leads us to view other people as either the competition to be beaten or as the means to an end- our end. And if we don’t think they’re helping us to achieve our goals, we drop them like a hot potato. That’s why the famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis once described hell, not as a fiery pit, but as an existence of supreme selfishness, in which people become more and more separated from each other, until they wind up in a terrible, eternal isolation.
Of course, selfishness is by no means unique to our culture. A tendency toward selfishness is a universal quality of our fallen, sinful human nature. That’s why in today’s gospel Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourself. Love is the antidote to selfishness- and the loneliness that comes with it. However, because selfishness can be such a powerful force in our lives, Jesus had to actually command us to love.
When I was younger I didn’t understand how love could be a commandment. But that’s because I was confusing “love” with being “in love.” Being in love is a wonderful thing. But it can also be a selfish thing, because by it we feel needed, wanted, accepted, and loved. However, the being “in love experience” doesn’t last forever, and it usually lasts less than two years. It’s when it ends that the real work of love begins- the love Jesus commands us to give. This love is not a feeling, but a choice. It’s a gift of our self that we make for the benefit of others so they can become the people God created them to be. It’s a choice to meet another’s person’s need, instead of focusing exclusively on our own. It’s sacrificial, not selfish.
Today’s gospel challenges us to give this kind of love. We should ask ourselves: Do we love others as much as we love ourselves? Consider the people in your life. Do we serve them, or do we expect them to serve us? Do we ever consider their needs? Do we even know what they really are? And if we do know, what should we do to meet those needs?
For instance, do we need to spend quality time with them? Do we just need to be with them- instead of being somewhere else? Do we need to talk with them and share our feelings? Do we need to really listen without judging, interrupting, or giving advice? Do we need to give them a hug or physical affection? Do we need to tell them that we love them? Do they need our forgiveness? Maybe they need us to help with the kids, repair the house, or read them a story. Maybe they need us to get professional help for a problem or addiction. Maybe they need a token of our love- a little gift, a night out, a note.
Everyone’s needs for love are somewhat different. We can’t just assume we know what they are. And we can’t assume that they’re the same as hours. We have to ask, then we have to act. Even if doing those things doesn’t come naturally to us. Even if we don’t feel like doing them. Even if we don’t think the people we’re doing them for really deserve them.
Sometimes it’s hard to love other people this way when they’re being difficult, or when we feel they don’t love us back. It’s tempting to withhold our love from them or shut ourselves off from them, because that’s a way we can punish them. But Jesus hasn’t called us to punish. He has commanded us to love. Let’s face it: Lovable people are easy to love. Difficult people are hard to love. Sometimes they require tough love. As disciples of Jesus, however, they are the measure of our love.
Loving others can indeed be a challenge. Our selfishness tries to prevent us from considering others’ needs in addition to our own. That’s why Jesus commands us to make the choice to love. Because life is not about getting ahead of others. And life is not just about us. As Christians, life is about loving- in the same way that Jesus loves us.
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102311.cfm