Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lovings And Hatings

Love and hate are two terribly overloaded words. It’s possible to say:
  1. I love my wife
  2. I love my kids
  3. I love my work
  4. I love my car
  5. I love Bach
  6. I love the New York Rangers
  7. I love cherry pie

...with some reasonable meaning adducible from each statement, but no use of love being even remotely similar to any other. The same applies to hate:

  1. I hate my job
  2. I hate my commute
  3. I hate the jackass who just cut me off
  4. I hate this BLEEP!ing dress code
  5. I hate “rap music”
  6. I hate the Boston Red Sox
  7. I hate broccoli anyone can see.

Yet these are two of the most important words in the lexicon of theology. That their meaning is frequently misconstrued adds to the tragedy. Consider the following Gospel passages:

"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." [Matthew 22:37-40]
”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” [Matthew 5:43-45]
I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain. 12:25 The one who loves his life destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it for eternal life. [John 12:24-25]

...and also this famous passage from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. [Romans 13:8-10]

Clearly, the uses of love in the above passages have no erotic connotation. Neither do they speak of the sort of appetites for pleasures and beauties which we often express as love. (And need it be said, neither do they express a fan’s affinity for a favored team?) The uses of hate are similarly distant from the enumerated uses at the head of this article.

So what do they mean?

I’m no theologian. I’ve never attended a seminary. I have no qualifications for scriptural exegesis. I’m not even a particularly good person. (“Average” is about the best I can aspire to.) I’m just an old guy who thinks about things. Sometimes I think about matters of faith and the spirit, and one of these little pieces pops out. If they entertain and / or edify you, Gentle Reader, that’s all well and good. However, if you deem them a species of misdirection, obfuscation, or conceit, you’re free to dismiss them unread. That is as it must be.

But I do think about things. I have a particular love of language. I find the little quirks and mysteries that surround the language used in the New Testament particularly fascinating. The Redeemer’s uses of love and hate strike me as critical gates to understanding God’s desires for us in our mortal lives...gates that can be opened by humble reflection, but if viewed arrogantly or uncritically might remain forever closed.

Man is a bifurcated creature, at once the possessor of material and spiritual qualities. If the more important of our two natures is the spiritual side – and really, how could it not be, given that this life is temporary but the life to come is eternal? – then Christ’s uses of emotionally evocative language might best be interpreted as pertaining to the well-being of our souls and our attitudes toward the souls of others. That’s not to say it doesn’t have temporal significance as well, for you cannot split the temporal and material from the spiritual and eternal by any operation of which Man is capable. However, starting from spiritual side in our deliberations might lead to better comprehension of His teachings.

Thus, our question becomes: What might love and hate mean in the spiritual domain? The answer seems fairly obvious (always a red flag that suggests that we think again and harder):

  • To “love your neighbor” is to desire that he be admitted to eternal bliss in the next life;
  • ...whereas to “hate your enemy” would be to wish damnation – eternal separation from God – upon him.

Those meanings would transcend all other interpretations of the words.

Clearly, we are not commanded to “make love” to our neighbor. Among other things, it would be an exhausting sort of chore. Neither are we commanded to regard his interests in this life as equal in priority to our own. No scheme of economics would be practical under such a requirement. And so on, through the temporal overloadings of the word love. Similarly, few of us have felt the corrosive, all-consuming malevolence toward another person that would make us sincerely want him dead, much less damned. Human uses of the word hate are almost always overstatements of mild to moderate distaste. (Yes, that includes the hatred of broccoli.)

From the spiritual perspective, loving our neighbor seems a much clearer, more achievable goal. Similarly, the injunction against hating our enemies acquires clarity and obvious moral force.

The brief discussion above is just one of my starting points for exploring the implications of Jesus’s commandments to mortal men. I am persuaded, as a postulate of further considerations, that He meant it when He said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light:”

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:28-30]

That, too, has its implications. The Redeemer would not have laid painfully stringent prescriptions or proscriptions upon us if He meant it. I choose to believe that He meant it just as it reads.

May God bless and keep you all.


Guy S said...

You have, as far as my five active brain cells are able to figure it out, pretty much summed it all up quite nicely.

The few occasions when I have contemplated same, it really does appear to be "that easy", "Love your neighbor, as you would yourself".

Yet it amazes me that we humans, faced with this simplest of tasks, are able to consistently botch things up, often in spectacular fashion.

If any of those residing in Heaven...from the Good Lord, on down to the smallest of cherubs, happens to be glancing my way, at any given time...that would be ample enough proof that the face palm was first used on Heaven's shores.

Have a great day Fran!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this helps or not, but the thing to keep in mind with regard to love and hate is that they are verbs. Modern people have forgotten this, and that is where all the overloading of meaning comes from.


David DeGerolamo said...

Although the English Bible uses love in the same context, the Greek version had four different words to express love:

1. EROS: this Greek word was not used in the New Testament. It refers to sexual love and probably derived its name from the mythical god of love.

2. STORGE: This is the type of love signifying the natural affection between kinfolk. This word appears only occasionally in the New Testament and only in compound form.

3.PHILEO: This Greek word for love signifies, “…spontaneous natural affection, with more feeling than reason” (Elwell, p. 1357). Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines phileo as, “to be a friend to…fond of an individual or object; having affection for (as denoting attachment); a matter of sentiment or feeling”.

4.AGAPE: This Greek word for love is by far the one that appears most frequently in the New Testament. It is, “…generally assumed to mean moral goodwill which proceeds from esteem, principle, or duty, rather than attraction or charm… [it] means to love the undeserving, despite disappointment and rejection…Though agape has more to do with moral principle than with inclination or liking, it never means the cold religious kindness shown from duty alone, as scriptural examples abundantly prove” (Elwell, p. 1357).

Anonymous said...

I'm not trying to nit-pick, so please don't post this comment, but in the second to last paragraph you obviously meant to write: "...upon us if He DIDN'T mean it."

And you are correct. Exegesis trumps theology. The Scripture says what it means and means what it says. The rural Protestant hillbilly in Appalachia has a greater understanding of the true will of God than most theology professors, simply because he reads what Jesus said and takes him at his word.

Francis W. Porretto said...

No, Anon, I meant it as it stands, though I should have reversed the clauses for clarity:

"If He meant it" -- that is, if He sincerely meant "my yoke is easy and my burden is light" -- then "He would not lay painfully stringent prescriptions and proscriptions upon us" -- and as we can see from His interaction with the "rich young man," He did really mean it.