When I was a teenager, I had this brilliant plan. (I had lots of brilliant plans back then, because at 16 I knew everything. I miss those days sometimes!) I wanted to study all the world’s major religions and philosophies and discover the common threads and universal truth that ran through all of them so that I could choose that as my own personal credo. It seemed like a very logical way to go about spiritual growth; unfortunately, like most of my brilliant ideas, it never got off the ground, except for Philosophy 101 and a Modern Catholicism class in college, with a sprinkling of Buddhist reading on the side.
But God planned ahead in love when He put that thirst for unity and purpose in my heart, and like most of my sincere and honest desires, He fulfilled it in His own time. Just last year, without having to exert any effort on my part, I stumbled upon the common thread. I was at an exhibit about Pope John Paul II at the Richmond holocaust museum, and at the end of the exhibit there was a wall of “scriptures” from nearly every major religion you could imagine, all saying the same thing in their own way:
“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In Christianity we refer to it as the “Great Commandment,” and even the secular, non-religious world embraces this precept as the “Golden Rule.” It is so simple, yet so full of depth. It harkens to a psychological truism that we can’t truly love others without first loving ourselves. We cannot give what we do not have.
Therein lies the dilemma. I follow the Great Commandment well. I often give people exactly what they say they want, even at the expense of my own well-being and peace of mind. I do love others as I love myself, which on most days is not much. Let me clarify this – I have no trouble at all being selfish, meeting my own needs and wants, and doing everything I can to allay my fears that I’m not good enough to deserve love. But that’s not really self-love; that is self-centeredness.
So my best case scenario when following the Great Commandment is to allay someone else’s self-centered fear (which is an effort in futility, as we can’t receive the love we’re offered if we’re steeped in the fear that we don’t deserve it).
Before I even have a chance to beat myself up about this, the still, small voice of my God cuts through the circular thinking in my “brilliant” mind and reminds me that humanity had thousands of years to figure out how to follow this one command, and failed. Even after generation after generation experienced God loving, relenting and redeeming, time and time again, from the flood through the escape from Egypt to the end of the Babylonian captivity, humanity failed to grasp that they were loved and could be just as loving.
The problem isn’t with the commandment that every culture embraces as its moral foundation. The problem is in our flawed human application of it. We fall short.
We need a new commandment. One without loopholes. And we receive this new commandment only from Christ in today’s Gospel from John.
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
Behold, God really does make all things new. Even the Great Commandment.
Loving my neighbor as I love myself falls short even when I apply the formula perfectly. But loving others as Jesus loves me is fail proof. Not easy. But fail proof. It is also uniquely Christian, found in no other world religion or culture, because it is centered not on self, but on Christ.
Love unconditionally. Forgive them when they don’t know what they are doing. Accept them even when they reject you. Feed them when they are hungry. Teach them simply. Be present to them even when you are tired. Be calm in the midst of the storm. Do not condemn them even when they are caught in the act; condemn only their hypocrisy. Heal with words of life and encouragement.
There is only one thing that Jesus did that we can’t do. We cannot save people from their sins. Funny, I see an awful lot of Christians trying to do just that, and only that, when it comes to loving like Jesus did. No wonder so many people reject the Good News. We are miserable failures at saving people from their sins, because that’s not our job, or our calling, and trying to “save” people just makes me look like an ass. Jesus did it once and for all, and doesn’t need any help from me on that one. As He said as he hung from the cross, “It is finished.”
“This is how all will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “If you have love for one another.”
It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Brilliant.