I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
Today’s conventional wisdom concerning love declares that it is ultimately self-serving. No one loves another for the sake of that person; they love them because they have something to offer. People befriend those from whom they can profit in some way, and if those people cannot produce, they no longer deserve the title of friend. Even in a more intimate relationship, lovers often unite and part on the conditions of mutually satisfying one another’s desires. In regards to family, many people fail to see why they should even have one, or stay in the one in which they were born; for the parents at the beginning, and the children at the end, the commitment of love does not justify the cost.
This rather cynical attitude towards love originates from a deeper point that people will maintain even more fervently: all people seek to maximize their own personal good. This means that people are not governed by principles, but by incentives. They do not act independently, but rather respond to possible benefits before them. If no benefits exist, then they do not make that choice. Acting rationally means doing what serves one’s self-interest and avoiding what goes against one’s self-interest. Thus, the majority of people pick their careers, their friends, their spouses, and even their church with the idea of acquiring various extrinsic and intrinsic goods; they do not necessarily make these decisions with the idea of being good themselves.
For this reason, we have become a society of salesmen and consumers. We advertise and make appeals to people’s wants. Because incentives motivate people to action, we offer incentives for every request we make of another person. We appeal to people’s ego, lust, greed, or vanity; and we expect people to do the same for us. This is the way the world works, and sages from Aristotle to Dale Carnegie have made this same observation on humanity’s incurable selfishness. Many people will even argue that selflessness is an illusion, for even giving to the needy has the incentive of boosting one’s ego or self-esteem.
To this argument, Jesus has an answer: Himself. He does not need anything, for He has everything already. He does not need an ego boost, for He is God. He stands in need of absolutely nothing, and yet he gives up everything and suffers everything. Incentives obviously do not motivate Jesus to suffer on the cross and give up His spirit, nor do they motivate him to do anything else in his ministry either. Love causes Jesus to act, nothing less. Jesus loves his friends and He loves his father. His love is pure, selfless, and infinite. It seeks the ultimate good of the other.
Thus, when He enjoins His disciples to love as He loved, he tells them to love selflessly, to love sacrificially. They must not seek incentives, but seek the good of the other. Although many people will simplistically assume that God will repay good deeds with a ticket to heaven, thus rendering charity a selfish action after all, Jesus says no such thing, here or anywhere else. When Jesus commands—as opposed to persuading—the disciples to love as He loved, they must love for God’s sake, not their own. Incentives, even the incentive of a perfect union with God in heaven, cannot to guide them, for heaven itself is a gift of love, and is a state of love, not a mere incentive to do good deed. If they should truly befriend Jesus and live with Him in heaven, the disciples must abandon incentives altogether, learning to love and act purely and out of obedience to the Father as Jesus modeled for them.
Only in doing so, can an individual break the utilitarian pattern of pursuing incentives that determines people’s behavior and keeps them, in a sense, enslaved. This does not come easily, if at all, for most of us, and Jesus does not pretend otherwise. He knows that this kind of selfless love will almost certainly lead to suffering and death: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If they did not realize this before, the disciples now know that what awaits Jesus also awaits them. They will have to live for others and eventually die for others because the world operates on incentives, and love disrupts this system.
This selfless love of Christ overtaking the selfish love of the world is symbolized in the appointment of Matthias to replace Judas. Matthias walked with Jesus and learned to love like Jesus, first in his leadership as one of the Twelve and finally in his martyrdom—laying down his life for his friends—at Colchis. Judas, on learning of Jesus’ intention to cast away all incentives and injunction to repent and love sacrificially, preferred to take the incentive and sell out the one he could have called his friend. He took the “realist” route of a scoundrel and thus “his encampment became desolate” and he committed suicide—laying down his life for himself.
In befriending Christ, Matthias experienced Christ’s wonderful joy, the joy of doing good and loving freely. In betraying Christ, Judas forsook such joy and instead experienced the misery that accompanies self-interest. In honor of St. Matthias, let us follow his example, preaching the gospel to those who have not heard, or do not believe, so that they may not experience alienation and utterly rational despair of Judas.
This meditation was written by Benedict Augustine, an English teacher who works in the DFW area. He has taken on the pseudonym, Benedict Augustine, to honor his two favorite Catholic thinkers: St. Augustine and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. (0)