Dear Father John, I have a question which may seem silly but I would like to ask it… Can you explain, what really is love for our neighbor? We hear you don’t have to like your neighbor but you have to love your neighbor. Take the…Boston bombings. Do we have to love the person who did so much damage, injured people, killed people for absolutely no reason, except that they wanted to commit murder? Then on the other hand, the book club’s “33 Days to Morning Glory,” [looked] at the Polish priest, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who suffered so much in the German Camp. What would he have done to show love for his tormentors? Which brings me back to my question, what really is love for our neighbor?
You are asking two related questions here, and we need to take them one at a time.
Christian Love Is Universal
The first question is: As Christians, do we need to love even horrible sinners, like the Boston bombers and the Nazi tyrants? The answer to that is a clear and unambiguous yes. For a follower of Jesus Christ, universal love is not an option, but a responsibility. We must love all people, including those who do terrible things – in other words, sinners. Jesus made this crystal clear:
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 those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Later, during the Last Supper, he reiterated this lesson, commanding his Apostles to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and his love was universal; it included all sinners, even his betrayer (Jesus actually washed Judas’ feet during the Last Supper) and his torturers (remember how he prayed for them while he hung on the cross: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34]).
St. Paul brilliantly summed up this universal quality of Christ’s love: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God didn’t wait for us to convert and repent from our sins before he started loving us. Neither are we to wait for other people to become perfectly holy before we start loving them. Mercy, which Blessed Pope John Paul II wisely described as the face of love in a fallen world, consists precisely in lovingly forgiving others when they don’t deserve it. This is Christ-like love. This is the love that must be the sign of the follower of Christ: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
So, yes, we are called to love terrorists and murderers, unfaithful spouses and sociopathic criminals, traitorous friends, and abusive family members. They too are created in God’s image; they too were in Christ’s mind and heart when he offered himself for sinners on the cross; they too are loved infinitely by God, who earnestly desires that they spend eternity with him in heaven. And if we truly love God, we will also love all whom God loves.
In our next post on this topic, we will discuss what love really does look like, a circle of merciful influence, and how to love those we would prefer not to love.
Art for this post “What Really is Love for Our Neighbor (Part I of II)?”: Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, photographer not identified, 1940, PD-US first published outside the United States (and not published in the U.S. within 30 days), first published before 1 March 1989 without copyright notice or before 1964 without copyright renewal or before the source country established copyright relations with the United States and was in the public domain in its home country (Poland) on the URAA date (), Wikimedia Commons.