The totally uncompromising words of Jesus according to which whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, calls to mind Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac, his only son (and heir). Jesus’ call to an uncompromising love of him is thus among those so-called “hard sayings” of Jesus that test the loyalty and commitment of his disciples. And yet, Jesus’ radical demands are not by way of simply testing us—or at least not in the same way that Abraham was tested. In his case, once he passed the test, Isaac was restored to him unharmed. In contrast, the demand that we love Christ above those nearest and dearest to us is a permanent requirement, and not simply a test of our loyalty and devotion.
Now although Jesus’ demand sounds clear and simple: Love me more than anyone else—even those closest and dearest to you—what is the measure by which we judge whether, indeed, we do love Jesus more than father or mother. Is it simply the feelings of love that we have for Jesus compared to those dearest to us? Or is it something else? This raises a basic question: Just how do we measure love? Can one love Jesus without necessarily feeling that love in an emotional way? If so, is it truly love? Furthermore, can Jesus demand that we love him? After all, we know that in our human relationships love is not something that can be demanded or coerced—it usually happens spontaneously and even unpredictably.
Answering these difficult questions is especially challenging because of the common understanding of love as something almost exclusively emotional. Thus, we like someone we love and experience warm and affectionate feelings towards that person. In contrast, dislike and the absence of warm affection are usually thought to betoken the absence of love, if not actual hate. However, if love is understood as far more comprehensive than feelings and emotions, incorporating the classical four dimensions of Agape, Philia, Storge, and Eros, then we realize that Jesus’ teaching about love concerns so much more than warm feelings and passing emotions.
Recall that Saint John insisted that our love for one another is a measure of our love of God—for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Although not quite the same idea, this insistence does suggest that feelings of love are easier with persons we see and interact with, than with an invisible God often encountered in the darkness of faith. So, perhaps Jesus is not necessarily insisting that our feelings of love for him should be greater than those dearest to us, but rather something else—something that engages Agape rather than Philia. In this regard we think of Jesus saying, if you love me keep my commandments.
Applied to Jesus’ demand in today’s gospel, then, this would suggest that any instance in which a preferential love for a parent or some other person results in not keeping Christ’s commandments, or involves not doing God’s will, would mean loving that person more than Jesus. Accordingly, there may be times when it may seem that we feel a deeper love for a parent, spouse, or friend than for Jesus. But, if this emotionally-felt love doesn’t impede keeping Jesus’ commandments and seeking the Father’s will, then it is likely that we do love Jesus as he should be loved.
All of this is, of course, only relevant in this present world of sin, limitation, and the imperfection of our love. For, when we pass from this life into eternal life, then our love for God and one another will be a single and total love that no longer admits of dimensions or degrees—neither lesser nor greater. In the meantime, though, we remember that God so love us that he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all. God, it seems, is only asking of us what he himself has already done with us.