The golden law, present in all religions and spiritual ways is: “love your neighbor as yourself”. Or to put it in other words: “don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.
Christianity incorporates this minimal ethic and thus inscribes itself within this ancestral tradition. However, it abolishes all limits to love so that it is truly universal and unconditional. It states: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father. For He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and rains on the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what advantage will you have? Do not the tax collectors do it too? If you greet only your brothers, what extraordinary thing is there in that? Don’t the pagans do it too? (Mt 5:44-47).
The version that St. Luke gives in his Gospel is instructive: “Love your enemies. In this way you will be sons and daughters of the Holy Father, for he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked; be merciful as the Father is merciful” (6:35-36).
This statement is deeply consoling. Who doesn’t sometimes feel “ungrateful and wicked”? It is then that we are comforted by these encouraging words: the Father is kind, in spite of our wickedness.And so we are relieved of the burden of our conscience that haunts us wherever we go. Here resound the consoling words of St. John’s first Epistle: “If our heart accuses us, know that God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20). These words should be whispered in the ear of every dying person with faith.
Such divine understanding brings us back to the words of one of the most encouraging psalms in the Bible, Psalm 103: “The Lord is rich in mercy. He is not always accusing, nor does he hold a grudge forever. The higher the heavens are above the earth, the more his mercy prevails. As a father has compassion on his sons and daughters, so the Lord has compassion on those who love him, because he knows our nature and what we are dust (9-14).
One of the characteristics of the biblical God is his mercy, because he knows that we are fragile and fleeting “like the flowers of the field; the breath of the wind is enough for us to be no more” (103:15). Even so, he never ceases to love us as beloved sons and daughters, and to pity our moral weaknesses.
One of the fundamental qualities of the image of God that the Master communicated to us was precisely his unlimited mercy. For him it is not enough to be good. He has to be merciful.
The parable of the prodigal son illustrates this with rare human tenderness. The son had left home, squandered all his inheritance in a dissolute life, and suddenly, nostalgic, decided to return home. The father stayed a long time, waiting for him, looking at the corner of the road to see if he would show up. Behold, “while he was still a long way off”, as the text says, “the father saw his son and, moved with pity, ran to him and kissed him on the neck” (15:20). It is enough to be back in the father’s house. And he prepared for him, full of joy, a great feast.
This merciful father represents the heavenly Father who loves the ungrateful and the wicked. He welcomed with infinite mercy the son who had lost his way in life. The only son who is criticized is the good son. He served his father in everything, worked, kept all the commandments. He was good, very good. But for Jesus it was not enough to be good. He had to be merciful. And he was not. That is why he is the only one to receive a rebuke for not understanding his brother who returned.
But it is important to emphasize a point that shows the uniqueness of the message of the Nazarene. He wants to go beyond simply loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Who is the neighbor for Jesus? It is not my friend, nor the one who is next to me. A neighbor for Jesus is anyone I approach, regardless of his or her origin or moral condition. It is enough to be a human being.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is emblematic (Lk 10:30-37). A nobody is lying by the roadside, “half-dead”, the victim of a robbery. A priest passes by, perhaps late in his service in the temple; a Levite also passes by, hurrying to prepare the altar. They both saw him and “passed by”. A Samaritan passes by, a heretic to the Jews; “he took care of him and showed mercy to him,” healing his wounds and taking him to an inn, and also leaving everything paid for and more that was needed. “Who of the three was next?” asks the Master. It was the heretic who approached the robbers’ victim. Love does not discriminate, every human being is worthy of love and mercy. Surely the priest and the Levite were good people, but they lacked the main thing: mercy, a heart that is moved by the pain of others.
In short, when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, he means to love those who are unknown and discriminated against; he implies loving the invisible ones, the social zeros, those who nobody looks at and pass by, to love those who, at the supreme moment of history, when everything will be wiped out, he calls them “my little brothers”. “When you loved one of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Saint Francis was the one who best understood this unique “more” of Jesus’ message. That is why in his prayer he asks: “that I seek to console more than to be consoled, to understand more than to be understood, and to love more than to be loved.
Covid-19 is showing, especially in the peripheries, among the criticized members of the Landless and Homeless Movement and others, that the message of merciful love, lived by the Son of God is not extinguished and is still alive and burning.
Leonardo Boff is a theologian and wrote Jesus Christ Liberator, Orbis Books 1972, various editions.