It’s probably not unfamiliar to you that children have sometimes, and often, great insights about life and about God. I remember a year ago, when we were celebrating at church the baptism of Brianna and Anastasia, I asked the kids this question during my sermon: “How do you know when somebody loves you?”
“How do you know that somebody loves you, how do you know that your parents love you?”
And one of the children looked at me a bit puzzled and then cried out, like it was the most obvious thing in the world: “They do everything for you!”
That was not exactly the answer I was waiting for, I was expecting something like: “They’re being nice to you”, but what the child said really made me pause and, you know, I thought “This is it, this is such a great definition of love”: When you love somebody, you do everything for them. You don’t just act nice, hang around being charming or pleasant, what you do is that you really put in the effort – whatever it takes. You do things for them. You do nice things and helpful things of course, but you also do difficult and unpleasant things, things you know they may even not notice or not notice they come from you. And sometimes you also do silly things, right?
And so, that’s what I thought about this week when I opened the Old Testament lesson. There is a huge story going on about deception, manipulation and jealousy, and there is certainly a lot to preach about that, but in the midst of that the only thing that really catches my eye is where it reads that Jacob served seven years for Rachel. Seven years! Seven years being Laban handy man, not shying away from doing chores and enduring the heat of the day, accepting to be bossed around by this old man who does not look like the nicest person in the world – as a father in law he was actually very deceptive – and yet, after he tricked Jacob, Jacob still did not lose heart and worked another seven years to be able to marry the woman he loved.
Now that’s something, isn’t it? Jacob was far from being a perfect man, as you probably know. He was also cunning and deceptive and jealous and tough, and yet, he had the child’s wisdom, he had the parents’ generosity, he knew from the bottom of his heart how a true, deep, real love looks like: When you love somebody, you do everything for them.
I read an insightful commentary that made a connection between this Old Testament lesson and one of the parable Jesus tells to the crowd today. The commentary said that to Jacob “had found his pearl”. Rachel was the pearl of high value he was willing to give up everything for – and so did he. I really like that the Scriptures mentions that “Seven years seemed to Jacob a few days because of the love he had for Rachel” – because that’s exactly how it feels when you love someone, right? You don’t check your phone when you’re with them! It’s true also when you love to do something, correct? I know I completely lose track of time when I am reading or writing and I can’t stand to be interrupted, I won’t even stop to eat something. When you love someone or something, you can just drop everything else and it does not feel like a sacrifice, quite the opposite: you find joy in doing so. And to me this is what Jacob did when he accepted to work all these years to marry Rachel. He worked hard indeed, but he did it willingly, from the bottom of his heart.
Now I think it’s worth spending a little time on Jacob’s story not just because I can be a hopeless romantic but mainly because it tells us a lot of what it means when Jesus asks us to give everything up for the Kingdom of God. The way we often react to that is that Jesus is going to ask us to do terrible, painful sacrifices, to endure many hardships and to have a difficult life – and well, sometimes, it can be true – but we also forget what it’s really about. The call to follow Christ is not a call to deprive yourself of plenty of pleasant and fun things in this life so you’ll have a crown in heaven and you’ll be rewarded as a good person, the call to follow Christ is about leaving behind all that is not that important to find true, deep and real love.
It’s about giving your everything to find God’s everything. And it starts right now. And like it did for Jacob, this love you find keeps you going through all your work, and all the hardships, all the tricks, all the lies and all the deceptions in the world. It reminded me of the story Viktor Frankl tells in his book about surviving the concentration camps. He said that what kept him going during these awful years was thinking about his wife. He didn’t know if she was still alive, but just knowing that a love like that could exist for him, had existed for him, made him stronger and always more resilient. The hate, the scorn and the humiliations he endured everyday from the nazis, no matter how terrible, were not enough to destroy this memory of having been truly loved and knowing he was a man worthy of love.
Now I think it also helps us to think a bit differently about the Letter to the Romans we have just heard this morning. This is a very famous passage, isn’t it?
“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”
The way we often understand this passage is that God loves us in Jesus no matter what – and that’s the truth of course. But now I think about the story of Jacob, and Frankl, and looking for a pearl of great price, I realize that it also means that truly love can keep us going – that love is not just only this charming, pleasing feeling, but with love in our hearts we are more powerful than armed soldiers and nothing in the world can defeat us. Not even death.
Now we don’t love out of our own strength, but God gives us the strength, God gives God to us and God gives us the ability to be loving whatever the circumstances and beyond everything that we could ever imagine: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness (…) that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”.
That is something that is important to remember, that God is always ready to give us the strength to love. Not only to love people in the midst of difficulties, or to love people who are difficult to us. God gives us also the strength to love ourselves in spite of not being loved in the way we would like to be.
It does not make us invincible, but it carries us through.
Sometimes love keeps us going because it gives us energy and purpose, like it did for Jacob and Frankl. But sometimes also love carries us through just when we let ourselves being loved by God, by our parents, by our friends – being accepted and nurtured and taken care of. Sometimes we may find ourselves, especially when old, sick or depressed, in situations where we have to let others “do everything for us”, and it may not be easy to accept. Sometimes we need to be able to ask for help, for compassion or for respect. Sometimes we may need to tell people we need them to love us, or we need to tell them the way we would like them to love us. But in the end I think, it all comes down to what Jesus tells us today in the Gospel: that the kingdom of heaven, the reign of love, is worth giving the best, asking for the best, because love is worth everything.
Love can do and give everything because love is everything. A Saint said one day that unfortunately in our world “Love isn’t loved”, and certainly a lot of people value many things above love: Money, comfort, good reputation or just not looking like an idiot and valuing their own interests. But it also means that to be a saint, there is maybe nothing else to do than to value love above all things.