The Old Testament on the Order of Love

Since it’s Ash Wednesday, why not a more theological post for a change?

A week or so ago I posted an excerpt from Bleak House by Charles Dickens in order to give a literary example to illustrate a philosophical point: love is not a wild free-for-all, but includes within itself a certain order. One’s benevolent action should naturally be directed first towards those in close personal relations to oneself before moving out to help others. A “love” that fails to respect this order fails to be love, to some degree.

In the excerpt from the Book of Isaiah in the Church’s Office of Readings for this morning (Ash Wednesday), one finds an expression of this same reality of the order of love. According to Isaiah, the kind of fasting God wants from man includes “clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Isaiah 58: 7).

Isaiah

Note that “when you see them.” Loving one’s neighbor does not mean seeking out all humans in need and trying to help them, but rather seeking the good of those one actually encounters: “when you see them.” And, as the sacred text goes on to add, all of this presupposes taking care of those who are your own. A failure to first see to the needs of one’s own family places all your other benevolent love under a cloud of suspicion: are you really so loving, if you ignore your own family in order to pick and choose all the beneficiaries of your benevolence?

But that is the Old Testament, you say, a narrow mentality overturned by the good news of the New Testament. Now we can “put no limits on love.” But that is not quite true.  Christ healed countless individuals and drove out many demons. But, he did not heal everyone. He was not worried about doing everything that he could; he took time away for prayer. He would withdraw with his disciples from time to time, giving them “preferential treatment.” He raised three people from the dead (not including himself)–but surely many more people than three died during the years of his public ministry. Was this wrong? Was this a failure to love?

No, it was an orderly love, which is just a different way of saying that it was real love, not selfishness masquerading as love. Christ took care of his own (c.f. Christ on the cross entrusting his mother to John) and those he encountered, and beyond that, he reached out to all others through his suffering on the Cross–that is to say, through prayer. The same applies to all humans. It will be challenging enough to love your family and those you encounter during your days–entrust the rest to prayer. Your third-world coffee bean grower probably benefits more from your quick prayer for the world’s poor than from your earnest 3-page letter to your local grocery store.

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