Why does Jesus call the love commandment new?

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 14:21-27

After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” They appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

Revelation 21:1-5A

Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” The One who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

John 13:31-33A, 34-35

When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In John’s Gospel, before Jesus’ departure from the earth, He gives His disciples a farewell gift — a new commandment of love (rf Jn 13:34). But has He not already taught about this commandment? In response to a Pharisee who is a lawyer or scribe in Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark12:28-34 respectively, Jesus cites two Old Testament passages which enjoin love of God and love of neighbour (rf Dt 6:5, Lv 19:18): “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:39, Mk12:31). He also explains who our neighbours are through the story of the Good Samaritan (rf Lk 10:30-37). So why does He call it a new commandment now?

Created by God in His own image and likeness (rf Gen 1:26-27), man is “capable of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons” (CCC 357) as in the life of the Trinity. In other words, man has the capacity for personal relationships. And within the frame of personal relationships, love is the richest of all human experiences for it is the most fundamental human passion (rf CCC 1765).

So we can love because we are made to love; but many of us do not love the way God wants us to love. Often we only love those who love us, those who are good and kind to us, those who speak and look like us. But Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what merit have you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Lk 6:32). At times we love according to our feelings and emotions, like an on/off light switch, and sometimes we love out of necessity, pleasure or sympathy. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae gives insights of how “love” should be properly understood — “To love is to will the good of another” (I-II, 26,4). Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, further expands the meaning of authentic love, “No longer is it self-seeking but it seeks the good of the beloved. It becomes renunciation, a willing readiness for self-sacrifice . . . a continuous exodus from inward-looking self, a liberation through self-giving” (Deus Caritas Est Par 6).

This is what Jesus refers to the commandment of love as “new”. In the Old Testament, the gauge of love is the love of self. But now, Jesus makes Himself the model and yardstick in loving one’s neighbours ─ from love of others as ourselves to love of others as He has loved us. His commandment is new because He has elevated the standard of love on His very own. And how is His love different from our previous understanding and natural reaction? He welcomes sinners and strangers; He eats and associates with them (rf Mk 2:15-17; Jn 4:1-18; Lk 7:36-39). He has compassion for the sick and the lowly; He heals and befriends them (rf Mk 1:21-31, 3:1-6; Jn 5:5-18; Lk 13:10-12). He forgives all sinners including those who hate and hurt Him (rf Mk 2:5; Jn 8:3-11; Lk 7:48, 23:24). In short, He loves the unlovable, the unlovely and even His enemies to the point of laying down His life for them. He demonstrates to us a love that goes beyond oneself. He pushes love unto death which gives life. This is not only new; this is radical! But this should be the love that marks His disciples — a love that serves, a love that gives and a love that leads to life. In another word, a perfect divine love.

True, this may seem like an impossible task to us. But if we allow Christ’s love in us, we can then follow that road of love He Himself has trod and etched out for us. We begin with knowing God’s love for us; then make room to allow His love to grow in us by emptying ourselves from self-centeredness and self-gratification, so that it can overflow from our own lives into others’. Divine love does not come naturally to us, but Jesus has shown us what it is like. We need to practise and this should not be done sporadically but constantly and persistently. “Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim 4:15). If we commit to this, we will love as how God wants us to love in due time.

Posted: May 19, 2019

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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