Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Feb. 18, 2011. At the time of publication, Greenfield was executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago and editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
I think Jesus would have had it in him to tolerate Valentine’s Day.
But just barely.
After all, it’s pretty clear he didn’t have a sweetheart who would have received chocolates on the Galilean equivalent of our Feb. 14.
Yes, he did have some explicit and strict things to say about faithfulness in marriage and family values, but remember he also was recorded as saying that the true disciple needs to be willing to give up all that in order to follow him.
What he might have done is use the occasion of Valentine’s Day to encourage anyone focusing on love so intently to explore more deeply what that love involves and even what perfect love entails.
For that, Jesus had to call his followers to the God who is the full reality of love itself.
Human love only goes so far in approximating what true or perfect love is. To be sure, whenever love extends beyond the self to others, it reveals our human capacity to care for someone besides ourselves.
That is exclusive self-interest – even though we find a large degree of self-fulfillment in that love and care for others, especially when it is reciprocal.
But even with that capacity for loving others, according to Jesus, we normally do not stretch ourselves to our full loving abilities.
We settle for less. We restrict our capacities for love to those relationships that are useful, familiar and, yes, pleasurable: to one’s beloved, to one’s child or family members, to one’s friends and neighbors, colleagues and clients.
Am I remembering correctly that in grade school I gave a Valentine card not only to the pretty one I especially desired to win over, but also to other members of the class with whom I wanted to remain on good terms?
If memory is serving me right, it makes Jesus’ point that our typical view of love is at an “elementary” level.
On the human level, our usual tendency is to see any perfect love as having a single focus – whether divine or human – and any dilution of such love as less than perfect.
Less perfect, but important, love is accomplished by spreading the focus toward a limited number of love objects. Imperfect but still acceptable love is attained when it is spread more widely.
But in this scheme, it is completely acceptable not to love those who are outside the circle of one’s interest and care and, sure enough, to hate those who are perceived as evil.
This understanding of perfect love is typically given religious expression by having our most intense love reserved for God alone. With lesser degrees, we love those whom we understand have found special favor in God’s sight.
Acceptable but imperfect love is for those who are not, say, offensive to God. Here, too, in this religious rendition of perfect love, it is fully acceptable not to care for some who are “outside the fold” and to hate those who are unrighteous or downright evil in God’s sight.
So far as I can tell, Jesus thoroughly rejects this way of accounting for and achieving perfect love – whether it be love of God or love of human beings.
Because, Jesus said, just as God’s own perfect love falls – like the sun and the rain – on both the righteous and the unrighteous, the lovely and the ugly, so also perfect human love must be achieved not simply by only loving God, but also by having love extended to all whom God loves – that is, everyone.
A God who loves all requires the children of God also to love all.
Everyone, without exception, gets at least a Valentine card, and a whole lot more.
“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, so that you may be children of your heavenly Parent; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your sisters and brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as God, your heavenly Parent, is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
And Jesus clearly says we, as children of God, are fully capable of that kind of perfect love, although obviously we need constantly to stretch ourselves plenty to achieve that kind of perfection.
Maybe, then, for followers of the Jesus who barely tolerates our celebrations on Feb. 14, we need a Valentine’s Day do-over.
When committing ourselves to doing it right this time around, moreover, we will need to be careful to make this re-do of Valentine’s Day apply to every dimension of our lives – the private and the public, the personal and the political – seeing to it that God’s love and justice and peace, expressed through and embodied in us, includes everybody.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.