I think Jesus would have had it in him to tolerate Valentine’s Day.
But just barely.
After all, if you believe what is and isn’t in scripture, to say nothing about how the tradition has dealt with Jesus’ sexuality and love life, it’s pretty clear he didn’t have a sweetheart who would have received chocolates on the Galilean equivalent of our February 14.
Yes, he did have some explicit and strict things to say about faithfulness in marriage and family values, but remember he also was recorded as saying that the true disciple needs to be willing to give up all that in order follow him.
What he might have done is use the occasion of Valentine’s Day to encourage anyone focusing on love so intently to explore more deeply what that love involves and even what perfect love entails.
For that Jesus had to call the lover’s attention, not so much to the best instances of human love, but instead to the God who is, for Jesus, the full reality of love itself.
Human love, including the romantic kind, only goes so far in approximating what true or perfect love is. To be sure, whenever love extends beyond the self to others it reveals our human capacity to care, at whatever depth and intensity, for someone besides ourselves – to overcome, that is, exclusive self interest — even though we find a large degree of self-fulfillment in that love and care for others, especially when it is reciprocal.
But even with that capacity for loving others, according to Jesus, we normally do not stretch ourselves to our full loving abilities. We settle for less. We restrict our capacities for love to those relationships that are useful, familiar, and, yes, pleasurable: to one’s beloved, to one’s child or family members, to one’s friends and neighbors, colleagues and clients.
Am I remembering correctly that back in grade school I gave a Valentine card not only to the pretty one I especially desired to win over, but also to other members of the class with whom I wanted to remain on good terms, excluding only those I had no interest in at all? If memory is serving me right, it makes Jesus’ point about our typical view of love at an “elementary” level.
On the human level, I think Jesus may be suggesting, our usual tendency is to see perfect love being achieved by focusing love’s maximum intensity toward a single object of love. Less perfect, but important, love is accomplished by spreading the focus toward a limited number of love objects. And imperfect but still acceptable love is attained when it is spread more widely. But in this scheme it is completely acceptable not to love those who are outside the circle of one’s interest and care and, sure enough, to hate those who are perceived as evil.
This understanding of perfect love is typically given religious expression by having our most intense love reserved for God alone, with lesser degrees of love’s perfection spread toward those who we understand have found special favor in God’s sight (for example, through their good works or by their special election), and acceptable but imperfect love for those who are not, say, offensive to God. Here, too, in this religious rendition of perfect love, it is fully acceptable not to care for some who are “outside the fold” and to hate those who are unrighteous or downright evil in God’s sight.
But, so far as I can tell, Jesus thoroughly rejects this way of accounting for and achieving perfect love – whether it be love of God or love of human beings.
Because, Jesus said, just as God’s own perfect love and care falls – like the sun and the rain – on both the righteous and the unrighteous, the truthful and the liar, the lovely and the ugly, so also perfect human love and care must be achieved not simply by only loving God fully and most intensely but also by having love extended to all whom God loves – that is, everyone.
A God who loves all requires the children of God also to love all.
Everyone, without exception, gets at least a Valentine card, and a whole lot more.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your heavenly Parent; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your sisters and brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as God, your heavenly Parent, is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 43 – 38)
And Jesus clearly says we, as children of God, are fully capable of that kind of perfect love, although obviously we need constantly to stretch ourselves plenty to achieve that kind of perfection.
Maybe, then, for followers of the Jesus who barely tolerates our celebrations on February 14, we need a Valentine’s Day do-over.
When committing ourselves to doing it right this time around, moreover, we will need to be careful to make this re-do of Valentine’s Day apply to every dimension of our lives – the private and the public, the personal and the political – seeing to it that God’s love and justice and peace, expressed through and embodied in us, includes everybody.