Whoever does not love has not known God, because God is love. “By this, the love of God was made manifest in us, because God has sent his only Son into the cosmos so that we might live through him. Herein is love: not that we loved God, but rather that he loved us and sent his son as atonement for our sins. Beloved ones, if God loved us so we ought also to love one another.1 John 4: 7-11
But in reply Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.” And they say to him, “How could we go out and buy two hundred denarii’s worth of loaves, and give them to them to eat?“ And he says to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look.” And finding out they say, “Five, and two fishes.”Mark 6: 35-38
Today’s reading from 1 John tells us that we are to love one another in the way that God has loved us. The nature of this love of God for us is seen and known, we are told, in God’s giving of Jesus, the very life of God, to us, “so that we might live through him.” God does not love us because we have loved God, but rather in pouring out God’s self to us “as atonement for our sins.” Love, according to the author of this letter, is not a contract; it is not a response to another that is due them. Rather it is sheer and generous gift.
Such love does not come easily to us, as we see in the story from Mark’s gospel. We are measured and calculating. There’s an axiom that says “You can’t give what you haven’t got.” Yet, the teaching of today’s gospel contradicts this. The disciples are certain they do not have anything like the amount of food needed to feed the multitude. But Jesus tells them to give them “something to eat.” In a total contradiction to common sense, Jesus says in effect, give them all you have and it will be enough, as little as it seems.
As Paul works out much more fully in the letter to the Romans, it is when we were sinners, that is in our self-imposed alienation from God, that God sent Jesus. It was not because we loved God first, but rather even in our refusal to do so, that God gave to us all that God had. Love, in the scriptural sense, is so unlike our usual way of being, thinking, and acting that the only way the love of God can be expressed through us is when “we . . . live through him.” The revelation is that, again as Paul says, in Christ we “might come to live a new life” (Romans 6:4).
Recently two of the busiest people I know spent several days and nights with an elderly friend who was recovering from surgery. Their doing this during the days of Christmas, one of the few times of the year when there was open space and time for relaxation available to them, did not make any sense from a calculative point of view. Their nights were interrupted depending on the needs of the person to whom they were attending, and, rationally, there was always going to be a need for a more permanent solution to the patient’s needs. Yet, in that rare stretch of open time that the days between Christmas and New Year’s provides, they spent their time and their energy, that is themselves, in presence to their friend.
As I witnessed this, I found myself wondering about the ways I not only channel but limit my own love. Jesus tells us that with the measure we use, it will be measured out to us (Matt. 7:2). When I think about it, it is in the generosity of others that I witness and experience the love of God. In today’s readings we hear that this is the case because generosity is the fruit of “living through Christ in God.” That is, the distinguishing mark of God’s love is its overwhelming generosity.
Yesterday I was having a conversation with a brother who works overseas. As contemporaries we are no longer young and certainly experience the diminished energy that comes with our rather advanced age. He was describing to me some of the work he does with young people in college, and how his offering to them some instruction in meditation is, for so many of them, an opening to both personal capacities and an inner peace they have not previously known. As he described this work and the encounters with those he was serving, he made the point that when he was doing this he did not get tired. I immediately resonated with his comment. There are days, when I’m doing almost nothing, that I can feel exhausted. There are other times when I am working with another or others extremely intensely and yet seem to have an almost boundless energy and attentiveness for the work. The difference is love. When we are living and working out of love, for love, and in love, we are living “through Christ” and in Christ and with Christ. Every mass we conclude the Eucharist Prayer with these words, which remind us that if we are abandoning ourselves and offering all of our lives in this prayer, then we are doing so through, with, and in Christ. We are living our “new life.”
Lest this all sound too simple-minded, however, we must acknowledge that our motives are always complex. It would be easy to look at what we’ve just described and think of how it seems like a recipe for burnout. In truth, it is often easy in life to say “Yes” to demands of us to do what we are not meant to do. And so, sometimes the most generous and loving thing we can do is to say “No.” For me this has often been the more difficult thing. In order to do what is ours to do, we must at times say no to that which is not our work. When the disciples say to Jesus that it’s impossible to go out and buy two hundred denarii worth of loaves, Jesus doesn’t tell them to do so anyway. Instead he asks them “How many loaves do you have? Go look.” They then find that they have five loaves and two fishes, and so, Jesus takes, blesses, and gives what they have — and it is more than enough.
We are not to strain to give what we do not have. That straining comes out of our own need to feel valuable. On the other hand, we are not to withhold what we have. Generosity is to give without holding back. When our attempts to give or to love strain us and are effortful, that is a measure of our attempting to prove something or to prove ourselves. Oswald Chambers says that we have to give up the questioning of whether or not we are “of any use.” For, he says, the truth is that we are not. If we realize this truth, then we give without our trying to be of use, but only for and out of love. I work on behalf of others not to be useful or worth something, but only because this is what I am for.
In the later years of my life, Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:10 has become central for me: “When you do all the things commanded of you, say: ‘We are worthless slaves, we have done what we ought to do.’” In the sense of self-depreciation with which lived for much of my life, I carried always deep in my motivation a desire to be seen and recognized as good and worthwhile. Even in my most “loving’ of actions, I could sense and later see that there was a measure of performance in what I did. This is not to suggest that there was not also a degree of love and generosity. But to the degree it was performance, I was inhibited from the flow of living “through Christ” and so was always, to some degree or other, withholding some of what I truly had to give. it is the performance that tires us. it is the strain of making ourselves useful that distances us from the love.
And so, the words of Jesus in Luke 17:10 have been a great source of freedom for me. They have taught me truly how to work and how to love. We all know that our work will always bear very contradictory results and evoke very differing reactions from others. If we are performing or measuring our work and our love by results and reactions, then we have not yet understood that we are only “worthless slaves who are only doing what we ought to do.” In other words, our task is simply to give away generously in our love and work all we have and are. As Chambers points out, being of use and being of value are not the same thing. God first loved us and so we are infinitely valuable. Our task is to love one another and to work for one another with the very same love that God has for us. This is not a separate love that is similar to God’s. It is rather God’s very love pouring out through us.
If human love does not carry one beyond oneself, it is not love. If love is always discreet, always wise, always sensible and calculating, never carried beyond itself, it is not love at all. It may be affection, it may be warmth of feeling, but it has not the true nature of love in it.Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, February 21
Have I ever been carried away to do something, for God not because it was my duty, nor because there was anything in it all beyond the fact that I love God? Have I ever realized that I can bring to God things which are of value to God, or am I mooning round the magnitude of God’s Redemption, while there are many number of things I might be doing? Not Divine, colossal things which could be recorded as marvelous, but ordinary, simple human things which will give evidence to God that I am abandoned to God? Have I ever produced in the heart of the Lord Jesus what Mary of Bethany produced?
There are times when it seems as if God watches to see if we will give God the abandoned tokens of how genuinely we do love God. Abandon to God is of more value than personal holiness. Personal holiness focuses the eye on our own purity; we are greatly concerned about the way we walk and talk and look, fearful lest we offend God. Perfect love casts out all that when once we are abandoned to God. We have to get rid of this notion—“Am I of any use?” and make up our minds that we are not, and we may be near the truth. It is never a question of being of use, but of being of value to God. When we are abandoned to God, God works through us all the time.