Sunday, April 10, 2016
Greater Love Than This?
An elderly friend who attends our Caregiver’s Support Group called me yesterday. “My children have kidnapped my husband,” she said. Then she went on to explain how they viewed that his worsening dementia required specialized care beyond that which she could give her beloved spouse.
She was sad.
I offered my condolences to her and voiced confidence that her children loved their parents, and were undoubtedly acting out of that love. She acknowledged that fact, but said she planned to talk to some Eldercare lawyers this week --- but to me she seemed somewhat in doubt about this course of action. No great ideas came to me on the matter (wisdom is often not one of my strengths), and so I offered to her that we both should be praying for wisdom on how to proceed, and she agreed.
It was in the chapel early this morning, however, that perhaps our prayers were answered.
I recently began reading Fr. Robert Spitzer’s latest book: God So Loved The World. In it he writes at length about agape love, God’s unconditional love, and what that means for us. Early in the book he looks at Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Fr. Spitzer describes how the prodigal son’s leaving of his father and subsequent behaviors were the epitome of Jewish thoughts about sinful actions. Almost everything the son did was described as sin in their laws. And the Jews knew what their laws would proscribe in response to sin; like any broken law, it required justice in response. Knowing this, Fr. Spitzer speculates that the Jews were probably expecting father to respond to his sons return, in justice, something like this: “If you wanted to live in the land of the Gentiles, and throw away everything I have given to you, then go back to ‘your’ people --- your way of life and your ‘religion.’”
But that isn’t the father’s reaction which Jesus described, much to their surprise. “When he meets his son, he throws his arms around him and kisses him. The kiss is not only an act of affection, but also a sign of forgiveness.” The father shows no anger, for “he has not stopped loving (unconditionally loving) his son for a single second. It is as if he had done nothing to humiliate nor dishonor his father and family.” And then the son finally speaks: “Father, I have sinned” --- the opening words WE say when we partake in the sacrament of Confession.
Saint Paul speaks of this unconditional love of God the Father: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not height, not depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:37-9). This love is agape love, a total self-giving love, that continues despite the failures of the ones we love. This is the love Jesus says the Father has and we must have. It is a love that puts mercy above the justice demanded by earthly laws.
Spitzer goes on to speak of suffering and its relationship to love. Seeing someone we love fail us, sin, perhaps even walk away from us (as the Prodigal Son did) causes us much pain. God feels that pain acutely when we turn away from Him in sin. Yet, as Jesus over and over tried to explain, the Father who suffers thus loves us anyway. And we should accept suffering and love anyway, also.
I have known people who can love through suffering. Just this morning at mass I watched the mother patiently break off a small piece of the Eucharist host, and place it in her wheelchair-bound son’s mouth, and then take a small drop of the wine and place it on his lips, which he quickly swiped with his tongue and said: “Mmmm.” And I saw the man who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer helping people around him --- after being prayed over a couple of years ago the cancer stopped growing but is so invasive in his brain it cannot be removed, and doctors have told him it might start growing again at any time. These are people who love, despite suffering, knowing that love isn’t about what they get, but what they give to others.
We think that when someone offends us justice demands that they ask our forgiveness, that they get humble and come around to our will. But Jesus says no, love must be stronger than that. We are the ones who must humble ourselves, temper our desire for justice and our demands that our will be done. Fr. Spitzer explains: “Saints Peter and Paul conclude that suffering is an invaluable preparation for the Kingdom of God (see 2Cor 12:7-10). For them, suffering is vital to freedom FROM egocentricity, pride, hard-heartedness, and dominion of others, and so it is vital FOR humble-heartedness, gentle-heartedness, compassion, and respect.” In Jesus’ dying words Psalm 22 speaks of “suffering as self-sacrifice or as an offering of self for others.” John puts it bluntly: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13).
So how do these lessons on love relate to my friend whose husband was kidnapped? How should she treat her kids, vis-à-vis what they did to her? How should she treat her husband, who was separated from her? How should WE treat those who behave badly toward us? Certainly God doesn’t imply we should agree with bad behavior, nor encourage it, but clearly He does ask us to go beyond justice. There are no simple answers to the above questions about what we should do, but there are God’s words, which give us much to think on, and to pray on.
There is one further point which Fr. Spitzer makes in his book which bears consideration. The very first chapter of his book is titled: The Supremacy of Love, and in the very first paragraph of that chapter Fr. Spitzer comments on the title’s wording: “Huh? What does that mean?” ‘Supremacy’ implies power, while ‘love’ implies gentleness or humility. Those don’t seem to go together. But then he goes on to explain, noting that real love is an “actualizing what is ultimately positive, ultimately healing, ultimately fulfilling, ultimately transformative, and therefore ultimately victorious.” What he is saying is that love isn’t about feeling good, it’s about acting good, and that acting good is empowering to us. If we truly love as God wishes us to, we’d put that love into action.
And sometimes that may even mean “laying down our life.”