What is love? (Probably not nationalism)

July 2, 2017

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 97


Okay, so I opened the reading for July 2, saw that it was this Gospel, and said, oh, God, why the hell am I doing this before I get a theological education? (Then I had to go reread the blurb in my “About” page that basically exists so that I can reassure myself.)

Because this – this Gospel – is one of the hardest ones for know what to say about! It makes me so uncomfortable! It makes me sad and frustrated and it seems to defy everything that I understand about Christianity and radical love and all that good shit.

Jesus said to his apostles:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.[1]
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

I just want to yell, what is love? My initial (scattered) thoughts:

  • I hate it when people today claim to love Jesus more than anyone else, because that love for Jesus is so abstract, spiritual, insubstantial, one-sided. Unless you believe that you have a mystical relationship with Jesus in which he appears to you or speaks to you (which I certainly don’t have), how does that work?
  • If you believe that you encounter God through other human beings (which I do believe), how can you separate God from that human form which embodies/images her? Like… how? We can’t know God except through her creation. Besides, the whole point is that Christians are supposed to love people in their brokenness. We have to love their God-parts and their not-God-parts.
  • Finally, if God is love, how the hell can you rank love? Isn’t that just straight-up blasphemy? Not all love is the same, but how can there be better love? Maybe you can have more or less love, sure, but… I don’t know, I feel weird about the implication that some love is more important than others.

It does help, though, that this reading fell right before the 4th of July. Thinking about this in the context of nationalism helped a bit. It might be a bit ridiculous, but I started thinking about the Founding Fathers. Jesus is likely calling on us to reject the social structures that we accept as given. He’s saying, hey, you need to question the very foundation of who you are. You need to think about why you automatically love your mom more than you love that beggar on the side of the road – or the random rabbi from Nazareth. You need to think about why you automatically love the white American dude in an American flag tank top in that parade more than you love the undocumented worker on the local dairy farm. I don’t think he’s saying that you shouldn’t love your mom. He’s saying that you need to be critical of a world that has socialized you to believe that you must love certain people and not others. Before you worship (God and) country, take a step back to think about who you’re not worshipping.

Because sometimes fathers are not good people. Sometimes (well, always), nation-states are not so great. But even if your parents are the most wonderful people, they alone cannot embody God. That’s why we have to love God the most – we have to love God as imaged in everyone, even the most unexpected people. We have to love God in the stranger (in Jesus). If we will only ever practice comfortable love that society approves (familial love), how can we call ourselves Christians?

I think that if we try to love despite a society that teaches us how love ought to be properly distributed (assigned by race and sex, chopped up by political borders…), we’ll then become worthy[2] of Jesus. That’s my answer for now.


[1] I’m not even going to go into this. I recently read Proverbs of Ashes, a feminist critique of atonement theologies, and I feel profoundly unsettled and unable to articulate my own theology of the cross.

[2] Seriously considering what this word even means will have to be a project for another day…


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