In today’s Gospel reading from Jesus’ parting words to his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” (Jn 13: 34)
In the Book of Leviticus, God says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lv 19: 18b)
And throughout his public ministry Jesus taught his disciples to have love for one another. Why then did he say a “new” commandment?
Jesus said “new” because he meant a new interpretation of love. The word “love” is used very loosely today, in the lyrics of popular Rock and Roll songs, love is mainly a human emotion, a warm sentiment much devoid of common sense. Jesus’ concept of love is never such.
In so-called “private” vows at a wedding, the groom may vow “to massage your feet every night” as an expression of his love for his bride. Love as used in the Old Testament Song of Solomon is so different from Jesus’ understanding and interpretation of love. Jesus would probably not approve of many of our love songs, as devoid of sanity and true meaning.
Jesus’ idea of love was very different. For him, love is the love and care of the good Samaritan for the traveler waylaid on his way, of the good shepherd seeking his lost sheep, of the father welcoming his lost and wayward son, of the public sinner pouring costly ointment on his feet: for Jesus, “greater love than this no man has, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” To a world of betraying Judas-es, lying Peters, lying Caiphas-es, gambling soldiers, and a whole spectrum of evil at his crucifixion, Jesus declared, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do..” This is love which is entirely new. This is love as St. Stephen gave his life, “”Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. . . . Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7: 59b – 60)
Jesus’ teaching on love was new because it meant a new meaning of love; new, because it would establish a society whose basis, shape and character are rooted in love. It is not about good neighborly relationships, as stressed in the covenant in the Old Testament. The Old Testament stressed these sentiments and obligations: these appear today as social welfare and charitable works. Jesus’ commandment of love stressed his kind of love.
The early Christians lived this love preached by Christ such that those around them. It’s not fine words to describe their life-style. The early Christians out-lived, out-thought and out-died the people around them. Those around them saw this love as their living trademark, “See how these Christians love one another.” Their love transcended race, culture and language and created a new society, the Christian Church. There have been many attempts at a new society: Communism, Nazism, Fascism, Socialism and others have not led their followers anywhere. Whereas, at the heart of the early Christian Church there was a new sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, a new sense of true community, that became the wonder of the world. Its lasting persistence to this day in missionary projects, hospitals and schools, selfless and dedicated men and women of the Church throughout the world is proof and testament of this love.
Jesus” teaching on love is new because it is a new fulfillment of love. Love as lived by many today is a temporary emotional experience, here today and gone tomorrow leaving in its trail staggering statistics of divorce, suicide, violence and fraud.
Why did Jesus love people the way he did? Certainly not for what he could get from them. His was a love which fulfilled itself in the well-being of others, a love which helped others, which rejoiced in the success of others, which applauded the triumph of the good and wept with those in sorrow. Such is the love of Christ which he left as a new commandment to his disciples and to all his followers. Such is the love of Christ at work in each of us. In this love the purpose of his kingdom is realized and fulfilled.