In the 70’s there was a man named George Price, a man famous in the circle of theoretical biology, who wrote an equation to try and explain the biological drive of altruism. There had been one already written, and it explains that we love our neighbors because it helps to further our gene pool. According to scientists, the same thing that drives us to be nice can also be the same thing that would drive us to be totally cruel. In other words, there is no such thing as selfless altruism.
This drove George a little crazy. A materialist and devout atheist, reportedly selfish to the core, George immediately became a Christian and set himself to being altruistic without gain. He gave away all of his money, distributed keys to his flat so the homeless could come and go. He did everything he could to give to others, even to his own detriment! He lost his life, penniless, with few possessions, in an abandoned house.
This is an example of some pretty extreme behavior, someone who is driven by his own past, but scientists do believe that we will only act in altruism if it benefits us. We don’t need a fancy algorithm as Christians. It seems this equation was worked out about 2000 years prior by our own Lord; it’s easy to love for our benefit but it’s not the goal! It’s easy for us to do what we want, but it’s not always the goal!
In today’s Gospel Christ sets the bar high, incredibly high. What does he say? He says even sinners love one another, so we need to love and give to those who hate us. Christ is always calling us to live to higher standards. It’s not enough just to have good intentions but to have even better intentions and to do them. We may get angry with someone and not kill them, which is a good thing. But the spiritual life calls us to a deeper level, to transcend the anger or evil thought so that the sin won’t take root in us. And it’s not an overnight thing, but an incremental act, done with purpose over time. When we can reach that level of pure love it transforms us!
St. Paul writes in his letter to Titus, “To the pure all things are pure but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” That is, the pure in heart shine forth that purity to the world. They are so filled with God they bless those who curse them and do good to those who hate them, just in the example of Christ. They notice the suffering of people, but do not judge them, knowing that if they act out in unfortunate ways it is because of their suffering, or fear, or ignorance. They pray that those people can find some healing in their lives!
And this isn’t just wishful thinking! When you allow purity to dwell in your heart sin cannot take root! People start to notice it; co-workers and friends (or the barista at your coffee shop) will remark on it, because as a society we’re very self-centered and not concerned with the purity of our hearts. But striving to have this inner peace and purity is a beautiful and holy thing!
This is a beautiful quote from St. Maximus the Confessor.
The one who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of detachment knows no distinction between one’s own and another’s, between faithful and unfaithful, between slave and freeman, or indeed between male and female. But…having risen above the tyranny of the passions and looking to the one nature of men he regards all equally and is equally disposed toward all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is everything and in everything.
Today’s Gospel calls in to question our motives. Our faith is tested by how much we love our enemies. It’s tested by how many conditions or strings we attach to our giving. It’s tested by our entitlement, how much we think we deserve as a result of our actions or service. It’s tested by whether we give a person who offended us or a stranger the benefit of the doubt.
It’s easy to be understanding with people we know! I’m reminded of a woman I know who hates government assistance, and has countless opinions about the people who use it; they’re lazy, cheating the system, not wanting to work, and so on. Then her daughter got pregnant out of wedlock, and the boyfriend wasn’t interested in helping. So she went on governmental assistance, using food assistance and to this woman it was ok because the daughter had all of these circumstances that she needed the the help. I asked her if she thought that maybe the whole lot of other “lazy people” have circumstances that led them to need help.
We have to assume best motives, that people don’t wake up in the morning wanting to hurt and offend people. There are things in all of our pasts that can shape out behavior today. Someone who was rude to you this morning could be going through money trouble, or had an argument with a spouse our child. There are a hundred things that could go wrong over the course of our day that might cause us to get snippy with one another. It’s not just enough to not act on our anger, but to see this person as hurt , and then to love that person! Maybe they need a hug, maybe they need a cupcake, but they don’t need our resentment.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depth of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed….I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
We’re all children of God. Man, woman, child, Christian, or otherwise. And we’re called to love them all, irrespective of their behavior, always striving to shine the light of purity from our hearts.