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“I am giving you a new way of life: you are to love each other. I have shown you the true form of love, so love each other according to this form. By doing this, anyone and everyone will know that you are my followers because such love dwells in your midst.” (John 13:34–35, my translation)

“Beloved, the love God has shown us obliges us to love others.” (1 John 4:11, my translation)

In this article, I want to explore the way of love that Jesus institutes in John’s gospel. In particular, I want to think through the nature and scope of our obligation to love, and why it is so central to the Christian life.

Ethical Determinism and the Gospel

In The Rivers North of the Future (2005), Ivan Illich argues that, because of the gospel, “My neighbour is who I choose, not who I have to choose. There is no way of categorizing who my neighbour ought to be.” Before this, who we could love was predetermined by the group into which we were born, usually bounded by race (an ethnos), kinship, or class. The object of my love––who I considered my neighbour––was thus predetermined by the “We” that always precedes the “I.” Who my neighbour is was already predetermined by the group in which I found myself.

While I think Illich is right to say that the love-ethic of the gospel has abolished ethical-determinism, I do not entirely agree when he suggests that what we are presented with is a radical choice (my neighbour is who I choose). The gospel does away with ethical determinism, whereby our neighbour is determined by an ethnos because it creates a universal obligation to love everyone as if they were my neighbour. Let me try to show you why.

Debt and Gratitude

While we cannot choose who our neighbour is, our obligation to love people as our neighbours is not a debt or duty; instead, it is an obligation that arises from gratitude, which has important implications. But why gratitude? And does gratitude really oblige us to anything?

Consider the parable of the unforgiving (or better, ungrateful) servant (Matt 18:21–34): a king forgives one of his servants an impossible debt; that servant then turns around and punishes a fellow servant who needs more time to pay back a small amount. The king says to the servant that he forgave: 

“Wicked servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me. Is it not thus demanded of you that you show mercy to your fellow servant in the same way that I showed it to you?” (My translation)

It is clear from the king’s response that the servant has failed to fulfill an obligation that had been created by the king’s act of mercy towards him. He has failed to truly recognize the mercy that is shown to him. Such a gesture suggests that he lacks the virtue of gratitude because to have a virtue is to have the capacity to recognize certain things as compelling reasons to act––features that a vicious person would not recognize as so compelling. This explains why the king responds to the servant as though he had done something morally wrong. The servant failed to perceive that the king’s mercy demanded that he respond in kind. But why do I think that this obligation is an issue of gratitude and not debt?

The first reason is that debt creates an asymmetry in a relationship; gratitude arises from an asymmetry. A parent cannot truly be grateful when their children obey them (though they may say they are): this is what a child ought to do. You can be happy when your child listens to you; but to be grateful assumes that they are doing something for you that they are under no obligation to do.

And there is a second difference between debt and gratitude. Debt obligates us to a particular person or party; gratitude seems to create a universal obligation, as in the parable above––that is, gratitude, unlike debt, is superabundant.

The Superabundance of Gratitude

I say that gratitude is superabundant because, unlike debt, gratitude does not oblige me to one person alone. If, for instance, I borrow money from someone, I am not indebted to pay that amount back to everyone. Debt is still between one particular person or group and another. A particular obligation arises from a particular action. Gratitude, on the other hand, creates a universal obligation from a particular action. 

To see this, imagine if the ungrateful servant in fact forgave the first servant he came upon: do we think that his obligation is fulfilled? I suspect most of us think that, were he to come across a second servant that owed him money, he should be merciful towards that person as well. But, then, there seems to be no clear point where he has fulfilled this obligation. As I said, from the particular act of the merciful king arose a universal obligation to be merciful.

The Demands of Love

Return now to Illich’s claim. For Christians, God’s particular actions towards us have created a universal obligation for us to love. Notice the similar structure between the parable of the ungrateful servant, and the love-command in John 13, as Jesus was under no obligation to show love to us, his enemies. His act of loving took place in an asymmetrical relationship. Thus, the obligation we are under to love others comes from a place of gratitude. The gospel has not opened up a radical choice; it has opened up a radical demand. The call of the foreigner or alien was not one that I could choose to answer if I heard it at all; now, it is demanded that I not only listen but respond. 

In particular, the love we are to show is agapē, or caritas as it is translated in the Vulgate. Thomas Aquinas defines caritas as amor (love) combined with benevolentia (benevolence). That is, rather than directing our wills toward what we desire, caritas means that our will is directed to achieving the other person’s good. What else could explain Jesus––the supreme Rabbi––touching his disciple’s filthy feet? Moreover, what else could explain Jesus––very God of very God––hanging bleeding from a cross for his enemies? This is the form of love––of caritas––that Jesus’ actions have obliged us to, not only for those in our family, tribe, church, race, or nation: we are obliged to desire the good of every other person we come across.

Thus, to conclude, I want to shift our thinking about obligation away from notions of law and debt, and rather to think in terms of virtue, and particularly the virtue of gratitude. But, second, we will be better or worse at loving others the better or worse we have cultivated the virtue of gratitude. Without gratitude, we fail at love, be merciful, or compassionate, and to show all of the other things we have received in such abundance.