By Father Pete Iorio
One day, as St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa, 1910-1997) and her Missionaries of Charity were tending to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, they happened across a man lying in the gutter, very near death. He was filthy, dressed in little more than a rag and flies swarmed around his body. Immediately, Mother Teresa embraced him, spoke to him softly and began to pick out the maggots that were nesting in his flesh. A passerby was repulsed by the sight of the man and exclaimed to Mother Teresa, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Her response was immediate, “Neither would I!” Obviously, monetary gain did not motivate the diminutive woman known as the Saint of Calcutta; love did. In her writings, Mother Teresa frequently affirmed the motivating power of love. Quoting Jesus in today’s Gospel, she wrote, “Jesus said, ‘Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other.’” She continued, “We must grow in love, and to do this we must go on loving and loving and giving and giving until it hurts – the way Jesus did. Do ordinary things with extraordinary love: little things, like caring for the sick and the homeless, the lonely and the unwanted, washing and cleaning for them.” Elsewhere, Mother Teresa remarked that the greatest disease in the West today is not tuberculosis, leprosy or even A.I.D.S.; it is being unwanted, uncared for, unloved. That she did her part in trying to “cure” this disease was attested in everything she did and in every word she said.
Jesus speaks of love. The English language is somewhat deficient when it comes to the actual meaning that Jesus meant. In Greek, there are four separate words that we only translate as love. We say: I love ice cream. I love school. I love money. Storge is the word in Greek for that meaning. The word in this commandment of Jesus is agápe. It is a love that requires total commitment and trust. It is the kind of love with which God loves us, a love that should be the model of the love we have for others. This love should be more than just a warm feeling toward others (filia); it should be a compassionate gift of ourselves to meet the spiritual and bodily needs of our brothers and sisters. Agápe implies a reaching out to others in a caring attitude for their wellbeing without expecting any favor in return. It is strong, positive, difficult, determined action. Jesus repeats the command to love one another three times, first explaining what it is (“a new commandment”). Then He explains how it is to be applied (“as I have loved you“). So the measure of love is not the individual but Jesus Christ Himself who gave up His very life out of love for all humans. Mother Teresa got nothing in return for picking maggots off a dying man.
The second reading from the Book of Revelation has Christ saying: Behold, I make all things new. I realize that when I fail to love unconditionally, I can begin again and ask Christ to give me the grace to do so, or at least strive to do so.
The Latin word CARITAS is the translation of Agápe. From Caritas comes our word charity. In charity, we give money and food and clothing and help to the poor. Our church is even considered a charity. The tax law change which raises the amount you can deduct on taxes makes me reflect more deeply on my giving. Did a tax deduction motivate me to give to charity? That is giving and also getting back. The teaching on Agápe love forces me to think about giving to charity even though I won’t get a tax deduction in return.
Jesus notes that this kind of love which imitates Him is the trademark of his disciples. Not only is this a new commandment, but also, Jesus teaches, it is the greatest. To love, in fact, is to know God—”Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). The early Christians practiced this love literally. That is why a writer in the second century named Tertullian stated that the heathens held the Christian congregations in high regard: “See, how these Christians love one another!”
Human relating matters. How we treat others is an indication of our love for God. Remember that Jesus linked love of God and love of neighbor as the two greatest commandments.
The fact is that Jesus’ death and Resurrection served, not just as an example of how to love, but as the agent that actually freed us from our selfish love through His indwelling presence. It was this new kind of love which was manifested by the first disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem (Acts 2:44-45). It was a love that was attentive to the poor and the needy. During his life on earth, Jesus Himself was lovingly present to those who were not at all lovable: the sinners, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the lepers, for example. He allowed himself to be moved with pity and compassion when he encountered those in need, and he was moved to tears in the midst of sadness. Jesus loved by serving others, by helping them and by healing others. His was a love that healed and built up, that challenged and inspired people. It was a deeply forgiving and sacrificial love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15: 13).