The Readings for the 7th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (A2)
Your heavenly Father… makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
I wanted to talk today about the Curious change when Jesus quotes from Leviticus. For in Leviticus it says be holy as God is Holy. But Jesus says be perfect as God is perfect. In the Septuagint, the Greek in Leviticus uses the word agios which means holy, but in Matthew Jesus uses the word telos which doesn’t mean perfect (as in our English) so much as it means ordered to the right ends. As a budding Thomist-in-training, I would be terribly interested in that “ordered to the right ends”.
However, when I woke up this morning, the radio (as is often the case with analog tuning) had drifted from my Catholic radio station to a pop-music station. So instead of opening my eyes to the Sunday Angelus from Rome, I was greeted with the following lyric: “I had to hate you to love me.” it was a jarring way to wake up, let me tell you. And it’s highlighted to me the need to talk about love.
Evidently the artist had just broken up with her lover – in not a particularly abusive relationship – and had discovered that she had been pouring out herself and getting nothing in return. So she left him and moved on. This song is a part of her “healing”.
What’s missing, of course, from the pop-song is it they were not married and therefore it was an abusive situation. When there’s no commitment when there’s no arrangement when there’s no permanence to fall back on little foibles become the death of the people involved. Just having sex does not make a “relationship”. It is actually the promise, the commitment to stay together no matter what that makes the relationship. A relationship where there is sex is a contract. Sex outside of this context easily becomes abusive simply by virtue – if you’ll pardon the word – of the way sex wraps us up in each other, tears down our boundaries, and makes us vulnerable to each other and open to new life. Once sex begins if someone pulls back and says “this is just for me” it becomes abusive sex.
Love (agape), however, is not sex.
Now, Jesus says we are to love our enemies. Jesus used the Greek word agape which means not love your enemies like they’re your best friends but exactly pour yourself out to them in love regardless of what you get back from them. In fact especially if all you get back from your enemies is abuse you are to continue to pour yourself out to them in love.
When agape takes over, the other content steps aside. Eros (sexual attraction/action) is a form of love, of course, but as anyone who has ever engaged in sex – even in a marriage – can tell you, this waxes and wanes. Philia (friendship), another form of love, may be present in some relationships but it is not required. Likewise, storge (familial/marital love) is part of some relationships – but not all. Jesus wants us to make agape part of every relationship, even the negative ones.
I find myself second-guessing relationships all the time. I’ve never been able to read what we might call sexual signaling. Is this person coming on to me? Do I want them to? Is there an expectation of “something else”? So many times the answer was yes and I missed the point of hours of conversation. One woman informed me after 10 years after we shared a cup of coffee that we had been on a date (in her eyes) with the simple line, “You never called me.” But Jesus calls us to love.
To overcome all of these ways our relationships fail to be perfect (to be properly ordered… ah the Thomist gets back to his topic!) – Love is the answer. Not our “love for each other” or even “God’s love for all of us” for both of these are vague theological abstractions that must be made really present. To make them present we need active love in the first person for the other. Your active love for the other. Love, in the first person, directed to second and third persons everywhere. Agape, the Christian idea of love that is understood to be most like God’s love for us, is not, of course, one-directional, but it never requires two directions. Agape is to always be present, even when it is only one way – from the “I” to the “you”. Offering all our intended actions on the altar of agape weeds out selfishness, ego, manipulation, and passive aggression.
The noun, agape, comes from the same Greek root as the verb, agapao. The latter means to entertain or to show hospitality. That will give you an idea of what agape should be as a noun. To be a lover, an agape-er, is to show hospitality, to actively agapao, to be deeply concerned with the wellbeing, the safety, the honor of the guest. That person, that icon of God in front of you, is the guest. In the first person, we are always the host, it is the second person that is the guest: always. You are the guest, never me.
It’s interesting to weave hospitality into this discussion because some Bible scholars see the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a violation of hospitality. They often do this to get away (or avoid) the discussion of any sort of sex action in that story. Yet it is a valid reading: for the intended rape of the angels by the men of the city was exactly intended as a display of power, of destroying the rights of Lot’s guests to hospitality – a life or death matter in that culture and environment. This ethical, hospitality reading is also part of the traditional Jewish understanding of this text. There – as in the traditional Christian reading – the ethical point of hospitality must be woven in with the moral point about sex.
This hospitality, this agapao, is a function of the virtue of chastity. When all of our relationships are given their proper telos by including God’s love then we can entertain strangers often and, at times, entertain angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2), just like Lot in Sodom. The Epistle to the Hebrews uses other words for “entertain” there, but the point is well made: as we welcome and venerate the icon of God in those around us we enter into what the Byzantines call “the angelic life”. We move through the world in Love, not hindered by sex, certainly, but also not hindered by our demands on the other, our pride of place, our “rights”. Instead, in love we give way before the other, and offer veneration to God.
This is what it means to be holy as God is holy. This is what it means to be telos as God is telos: to love as God loves. To love both the just and the unjust, to pour gifts on the loving and the unloving, to be equally present and self-sacrificing to all, even if they want to kill you.
Certainly to engage in sexual sin is to have a broken relationship but all sins are intertwined. The loss of the virtue of chastity can be predicated on simple lust, but in our culture it’s woven into a huge fabric of inhospitable actions; the inhospitality of relationships not built on holiness, purity, health, truth, and honor at all times. To enter into a relationship with a guest for the purpose of getting something out of the relationship – a contract, a better job, a position in the choir, sex – this is equally the sin of Sodom.
So, to get back to the pop song at the top of this post: the artist says that she lost herself in this other person and that she had to learn to hate him in order to get herself back. The fact is she didn’t get herself back that way. Attract all she got back was an isolated and lonely cry. Makes a beautiful song but they’re disturbing words. They should not be an Anthem of self-love as it often is described but rather a descriptor of our entire culture.
Our entire culture is predicated on this odd idea that I have to be complete and full in myself alone. I must own my own things, I must do my own will, I must be me. In Christian terms, this is hell not love.