Parting words to love

audio for ‘Parting words to love’ by Martin Malina
Flight of love, photo by Jessica Hawley Malina April 2022

Parting words leave a lasting impression.

The story is told of the words that were exchanged when the Spanish Priest,  Saint John of the Cross, died in the 14th century. At his death, the monastery that he went to, he deliberately chose one of the superiors who didn’t like him. On his deathbed, he said to the superior, “So whatever I did to contribute to the conflict between us, I want to apologize.” That’s how he died. And it was said that the superior came out crying. It changed his life.[1]

Sometimes what stays with us about a loved one who died is their last word spoken to us. Sometimes those words are instructions (“Take care of so-and-so”). Sometimes those words are a simple expression of love (“I love you”). Sometimes they are spoken to give assurance (“I am at peace”). Sometimes those parting words give us clarity and direction for the rest of our earthly lives.

Jesus gave his disciples parting words just before he died. These words  echo through the canyon of time to us hearing them read today. “I give you one commandment … that you love one another”. [2]

Now, on the surface this commandment sounds kind of soft. It doesn’t come cut and dry like all those “shoulds” and especially “should nots” in the over 600 laws and commandments we find in the bible. 

The commandment to love is often used as a summary statement for the two tables of the Ten Commandments. But it’s so hard to respond to this command stated so simply. We may receive it like a slider in baseball: The pitch appears first to be coming fast, straight across the plate–a simple pitch to hit hard, maybe a homerun! But at the last minute breaks down and away from the plate–a most difficult pitch to hit. Which often results in a strikeout! We really need to practice and work hard at it.

In the Easter season we reflect on what it means to be alive in the new life of Jesus. And this Gospel text gives focused expression to that life. In other words, being alive in Christ is realized in a loving relationship. After all, Jesus is love, as God is love.[3]

And the Gospel is full of images and descriptions of Jesus’ love in action. To illustrate this, another Gospel text echoes down the canyon of time from just before the Lenten season began, just before Jesus’ journey to the Cross. 

Jesus describes himself as a hen: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Jesus says as he laments over Jerusalem.[4]

Sometimes I think we would rather Jesus be the fox, as he described Herod, in that same text from Luke. Herod was the supreme ruler of the first century Roman Empire. “Go, tell that fox Herod”, Jesus instructs the Pharisees. Herod, the fox, was the one with all the cards to play, the one aggressive, defensive and wily.  But, no, in contrast to Herod, Jesus is mother hen.

First and foremost, being a follower of Christ means being gathered under wing, nurtured and held in a loving embrace. The fox may still have his way. The fox may still be a predator upon the mother hen and her chicks.

But in acts of violence and aggression the fox will never know love the way the mother hen will give it. In this image it is clear: Being with Jesus in times of danger is not about removing the danger. Being with Jesus in times of danger is about giving and receiving love in a relationship.

Love is an action word. Love is concrete behaviour in every moment we are given that communicates mercy, grace, forgiveness, faithfulness. And Jesus did love. He went to the public places, the city streets and gates. He healed the sick, brought sight to the blind, raised the dead. Jesus spent time with those who were overlooked and despised. He loved those who were marginalized in a culture dominated by violence, aggression and retribution.[5]

Many of those around Jesus wanted a Messiah to liberate them from the Romans and restore a religious kingdom. The religious leaders who scrutinized, criticized and argued with Jesus yearned for a Messiah who would give them what they wanted.[6] Many, indeed, wanted Jesus to be the fox. No, Jesus said to Pilate just before he was crucified. That’s not what Jesus’ kingdom is like, at all![7]

Do the echoes of Jesus’ parting words fall into silence? Will his parting instructions actually make a difference in a world today just as violent as in the first century? Do the echoes down the canyon of time translate to something more than mere platitude?

An image from the prophet Isaiah describes that day when justice is restored. This is the day when indeed the fox and hen will not be predator and prey. Rather, God’s vision is one in which “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them …”[8]

They say people who have difficulty loving others are those who can’t, don’t or won’t receive love themselves. Receiving love is part of our relationship with God. A fundamental part. 

Receiving gifts. Receiving care and grace. Receiving support when it is offered. Without making conditions on the gift or somehow making it into an “I owe you” kind of transaction. Receiving love can be the most difficult act of faith. In truth, we will often reject a gift when it is offered. This is probably our greatest downfall. We strike out.

And so in this Easter season may we lean towards, receive and depend upon the life and love of Jesus. The commandment to love may sound childish. We won’t find this ‘law’ anywhere written in public discourse, debated in our legislative assemblies, printed in constitutions or legalized. 

Yet when we practice it, we participate in the coming kingdom of God. When little acts of grace, or big acts of grace, are given and received freely, in our lives, we are letting “a child lead us”–the babe born in Bethlehem and the One who refuses to stop loving us. Thanks be to God!


[1] James Finley in Richard Rohr, “Transformed by the Dark Night; Week 19 Luminous Darkness, Deepening Love” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 13 May 2022).

[2] John 13:31-35

[3] 1 John 4:8,16

[4] Luke 13:31-32, 34

[5] Luke 6:27-36

[6] John 10:22-30

[7] John 18:36

[8] Isaiah 11:6 NRSV

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