Faith reflections: The labor of love
by Meghan Johnston Aelabouni
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
“I love you, Ethan,” said my four-year-old daughter Natalie to her seven-year-old brother one day. He rolled his eyes with a sigh worthy of a teenager.
Undaunted, Natalie tried again: “Ethan, I love you! I love you, Ethan!” Silence.
Then came the sound of my sweet girl screaming like a heavy metal singer: “Ethan! I love you!!!” Still no response; so Natalie brought out the heavy artillery: “Mo-om! Ethan won’t say it back!”
A predictable discussion ensued:
“Ethan, tell your sister you love her.”
“But Mom, I don’t love her. She’s annoying.”
“Ethan, tell your sister you love her or you’ll lose your iPad time.”
“Fine,” Ethan huffed. In his flattest voice, he muttered, “NatalieIloveyou.”
“Well,” his sister smirked, “I don’t love you.”
No one got iPad time.
Loving in myriad ways
Love. According to the Bible–and the Beatles–it’s all you need. Love God, love others, love yourself. (And don’t forget to love your enemies.) “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.” Clear advice. Sensible. And hopeless! I mean, seriously, Jesus, have you ever met us?
Each of my kids suspects that their sibling was put on earth for the express purpose of aggravating them. When I tell them that loving each other is mandatory, they look at me aghast, as though I have commanded them to ride their scooters to the moon or to eat (shudder) vegetables.
As we age, we learn to love in myriad ways. Yet even as wise and mature adults, we may find it difficult to love some of the people in our lives.
Jesus’ commandment can seem impossible. How do we love the bully or the betrayer? How do we love the person who has broken our child’s heart or our own? How do we love the presidential candidate we can’t stand–and the relatives and friends who proudly endorse that candidate?
“Love is a verb”
But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers. . .”
Who is the neighbor we must love, and how do we love them? Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story about an outsider who sees someone in distress and stops to help. One of my seminary professors summed up the parable this way: “Love is a verb.” In other words, no one is beyond the ties of neighbor–and to love a neighbor is to actively work for their wellbeing.
For those we struggle to love, this definition may sound daunting. But Jesus’ parable is not about two adversaries finding common ground. As far as we can tell, the Samaritan and the man he helps have never met before. They do not speak or exchange names. (Likely, this is because one of them is unconscious.) Jesus’ example, this epitome of neighborly love, is between strangers.
If love is a verb, then maybe the love God asks of us is more action than emotion. We don’t necessarily have to feel a warm rush of affection for someone in order to love them. As Bonnie Raitt famously sang, “You can’t make the heart feel something it won’t.” We are, however, asked to pray and to work for others’ wholeness–and as we do so, we may find ourselves changed as well. Maybe this is why we are to love our neighbors as ourselves: as we love others, love finds us too.
And if loving engagement in some relationships is not healthy or possible, there is still an option available to us: prayer.
Love and the Lord’s Prayer
[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive [us our sins,] for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
In Luke, Jesus’ teaching about prayer follows close on the heels of his words about love. As the church shares the Lord’s Prayer, the true gift of this prayer might be the plural “us.” Each time we say, “Our Father,” we are reminded that we are all connected–all of us saints and sinners, flawed and yet beautiful, made in God’s image. We may not all love each other, but we are all beloved of God.
As we pray “give us . . . forgive us,” we pray with family and friends, enemies and strangers. We pray together with people who have shown us kindness and cruelty, people whose hearts contain the same good and evil as our own hearts.
Those we cannot bring ourselves to love are still part of “us” in the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for their daily bread, too, that they might be forgiven, too–even that we might be the ones to forgive them! We pray that they, too, might be saved from times of trial, and that all of us might be delivered from evil–including the evil that divides us. As we pray in this way, we love our neighbor as ourselves, and even love our enemy. And “faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
1. What lessons have you learned about how to love others? How did you learn them?
2. Which is easier, or more difficult—-loving a stranger, or loving an enemy you know well?
3. What might happen if you committed to praying for the wellbeing of someone you find it difficult to love?
Closing prayer (The Lord’s Prayer):
Our Father in heaven, holy be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.
Meghan Johnston Aelabouni is an ordained ELCA pastor and a doctoral student at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology. Meghan and her husband, Gabi, have three children and live in Colorado.
Art by Morguefile.com. used with permission.
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