Christ’s Mandate Couldn’t Be Clearer — Even in a Pandemic

COMMENTARY: The loss of economic and social opportunities does not translate into the loss of one’s fundamental obligation to love.

Jesus teaches us to love no matter what.
Jesus teaches us to love no matter what. (photo: Unsplash)

A politician charms his voters by promising them better opportunities for success. Christ, on the other hand, is not at all concerned about success. He demands that all people love each other. Love is not necessarily a path to success. Christ, himself, crucified at 33 among thieves, was not, in the eyes of the world, a success.

The politician promises to make things better on the outside. Christ is concerned about who we are on the inside. Success, as the world understands it, is defined in material terms. Fame, fortune, social status, a fine car, a fashionable wardrobe and a fine house are success’ emblems. But this portrait of the successful person is not the portrait of saints.

Christ’s mandate could not be more clear: 

“What does it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own his soul?” (Mark 8:36). 

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). 

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 12:33).

The politician promises things that are both impossible and unfulfilling. 

We should be more concerned about obligation than opportunity. We have one fundamental obligation: to love self, neighbor and God. Opportunities are like buses: There is always another one that will come along. Politicians are concerned about structural changes that create new opportunities for success. The Christian is more interested in personal growth, which may or may not coincide with worldly success.

It is important to note that obligation, in the sense that we are describing it here, is related to truth. Only when there is a relationship to truth is an obligation genuine. Improved opportunities will be of little benefit to people if they are not anchored in truth and, thereby, correspond to doing what is good. 

In his encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope St. John Paul II expressed his concern that material success could obscure the more prior consideration of personal growth: 

“In the developed countries there is sometimes an excessive promotion of purely utilitarian values, with an appeal to the appetites and inclinations towards immediate gratification, making it difficult to recognize and respect the hierarchy of the true values of human existence” (29).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most Americans, because of severe restrictions, are experiencing the loss of a great deal of opportunities. Dining in restaurants, social gatherings, weddings, funerals and so on have been greatly curtailed. Businesses have been shut down, and, in some cases, churches have been closed. Whereas opportunities have been evaporating, the obligation to love and to grow as a person remains intact. The loss of economic and social opportunities does not translate into the loss of one’s fundamental obligation to love.

It is both sad as well as disconcerting that many people, dependent on material comforts and opportunities, have turned to self-destructive forms of behavior. Depression, alcoholism and drug addiction have claimed many lives. The current pandemic, horrific as it is, offers the challenge to summon, as philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich has expressed it, “The Courage to Be.”

For Tillich and many other contemporary thinkers, the prevailing anxiety of the modern world is “meaninglessness.” Life, however, is not inherently meaningless. Nonetheless, if we build a house of cards based on momentary pleasures and material possessions (while ignoring the development of our own personhood), that papier-mâché  edifice will certainly crumble. The consequence is a sense of emptiness that leads to utter meaninglessness.

Sigmund Freud, despite his many dubious declarations, was on the mark when he stated that material wealth does not bring happiness to a person because it does not correspond to an infantile wish. In other words, Freud saw the need for love as a basic human requirement — something “stuff” by itself cannot provide. Our most basic need, which perdures throughout our lifetime, is not for possessions, but for the giving and receiving of love.

A rather insidious problem occurs while people are quarantined. Inevitably, they watch television on a more extended basis and they are bombarded with endless images of attractive material possessions brought to their attention through the mass media. 

In the current crisis, authentic education is of far greater need than digesting commercial advertisements. Like the mythical Tantalus, people are tempted to lust for what is just out of their reach. As Pope John II stated in Centesimus Annus

“Thus a great deal of educational work is urgently needed including the education of consumers in the responsible use of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities” (36).

We do not mean to criticize politicians for creating opportunities. Politicians have a legitimate and noble role to play. What we are concerned about here is too heavy a reliance on material things — the sweet siren call of success — accompanied by a neglect of the role that love plays in the development of the whole person.

Politicians, in order to remain in office, must be elected by the majority. Their office is temporary. Christ does not run for election. His term is forever. But he must be chosen by each individual person through love. And that is the great blessing and advantage he brings to our lives.