30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

You probably know it as the prayer attributed to Mother Teresa, displayed on a wall of her children’s hospital in Calcutta. It begins, “People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.” These words were actually written in 1968 by Keith M. Kent.[1] But perhaps we hear it in a new way when it is linked with someone famous, like we’ve never heard it before. Never mind that it never really came from that famous person to start with. Maybe somebody brought it to Mother Teresa’s attention, or she saw it somewhere herself, and thought, “This will go nicely on a wall.” And maybe she assigned the task to one of her sisters who forgot to reference the author, and some admiring reporter or distraught visitor to the hospital didn’t bother to look up the piece’s true origin, and before she knew it, everyone was saying she wrote it. Of course, it’s not really a problem if the original author doesn’t think it’s a problem. Dr. Kent does mention the mix-up on his webpage. Now I would like to think the author of the Happy Birthday song could care less we don’t even know who they are, just as long as we keep singing. And I’m also not surprised that people will say I said things I never said. I only wish it was something remotely wise or inspiring.

The prayer, which looks more like a string of proverbs, pairs widely known but disturbing human behaviors with clearly ironic responses. It is striking, because Jesus could have said the same thing. I like to think he did, just not in so many words. Here’s my version. People are unlovable; love them anyway. People are judgmental, selfish, and manipulative; don’t let them get to you; love them anyway. People will take advantage of you; don’t let that discourage you; love them anyway. You want to trust people, but they will never trust you back; love them anyway. People will say nice things, but their actions will prove they believe just the opposite; love them anyway. People will call you names, stab you in the back, and laugh at you when you’re down; they don’t really know you or love you; love them anyway. People will accuse you of things you never said or did. If they’re right, own up to your mistakes and undo as much damage as you can; and love them anyway. But if you’re innocent, don’t get discouraged. Stand your ground, remember who you are; and love them anyway.

It’s a tricky thing, love. We think we know what it means, but there is so much that eludes us. The concept spans a wide continuum. We tend to notice what popular culture celebrates, like the feeling of contentment and security that accompanies a warm bowl of soup, a tall frosted glass of “I don’t care what’s in it,” an enviable piece of bling that could feed a small country, or an annual gathering of people who can’t bear to be in the same zip code the rest of the year. But love is more than a feeling. Rather, it is an act of the will, a conviction that must rise to the level of a conscious choice at some point. Patterns of love can look like mindless habits. Yet for as often as they are reexamined and renewed, they remain a powerful and enduring witness of fidelity.

We live in an extraordinarily stressful time, and I find it helpful to occasionally hear or read wise and inspiring words. But wise and inspiring words accomplish little if they don’t affect my behavior, if all I do is print them on nice paper, frame it, and hang it on a wall. Some wise and inspiring words do speak undeniable truths. But I may also realize I’m swimming upstream or fighting a losing battle. No one else is getting excited about it. People aren’t behaving differently. So I enjoy my moment and thank God I am not as clueless as I might seem. And when the moment passes, I simply return to the way things have always been. Maybe next time things will be different. Maybe not.

The passage we read from Exodus urges us to be mindful of those who are most neglected and vulnerable—the alien, the widow and orphan, the poor. And we need to be mindful of them because God was mindful of us when we were neglected and vulnerable. Some might say they have never been neglected or vulnerable, or they have never known God’s care for them in such a state, so they don’t feel obligated to pass on the favor. We should recall that the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt once. Though none of the present generation may have ever been slaves, God’s Word still speaks a profound truth, if only to remind us that our God will hear them when they cry out to him, and will hold us accountable for closing our eyes and our ears to their suffering.

And in response to a question, Jesus pronounced for us what he claims is the foundation of the whole law and all the teachings of the prophets. All truth revealed by God boils down to this: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind;” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2] If we get only one thing from all his teachings, this is it. Everything else is just an expansion on the theme.

Jesus places before us a complete and absolute directive to love. By saying “You shall,” he offers us no other option. But love is an act of the will. He is telling us that we must make this choice of love knowingly and freely. Now we might reject this obvious arm twisting. How can a choice still be free if there is just one option? Clearly there is another option. We can still say “no.” We are actually also free to disregard God’s other commandments. Remember those other commandments? “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness.” Of course, we are free to make our own choices. We just need to be able to defend them when we find ourselves standing before God.

And with wave upon wave of stories of people’s lack of love for their neighbor, and the frightful flood of hate and animosity directed against people of a different faith, gender, race, language, sexual orientation, or political persuasion, and the appalling normality of disrespectful behavior everywhere we turn, we might be tempted to just push back, and fight fire with fire. What’s their problem? Why don’t they love their neighbor? Why don’t they show greater respect? If the practice of my Christian faith is contingent upon other people practicing their Christian faith first, Christianity is doomed. Jesus commands us to love because we must still make the choice knowingly and freely, despite whatever else is going on around us, and whatever else everyone is choosing. He didn’t say “You shall love” so long as everyone else is doing it first. He said “You shall love” because God loved us first knowingly and freely. Your neighbor will be undeserving and ungrateful. Don’t mind them. Love them anyway.

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

[1] http://www.paradoxicalcommandments.com/index.html

[2] Matthew 22: 37-29.