By John Pilch
The Greek language (the language of the New Testament) uses two different words to describe and define love. The most commonly used Greek word translated "love" in the New Testament is "agape." This love is represented by God’s love for us. It is a non-partial, sacrificial love.
In contrast, our love is usually conditional and based upon how other people behave toward us. This kind of love is based upon familiarity and direct interaction. The Greek word "phileo" defines this kind of love, often translated "brotherly love." Phileo is a soulish (connected through our emotions) kind of love – something that can be experienced by both believers and non-believers. This is in contrast to agape, which is love extended through the spirit. Agape love requires a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, since the non-regenerated soul is unable to love unconditionally. Agape love gives and sacrifices expecting nothing back in return.
"What does Jesus understand by love? Mediterranean cultural anthropology sheds some light. Remember that our ancestors in the faith were strongly group centered. The group was family, village, neighborhood, and factions (like the Twelve, the Pharisees, etc.) which a person might join.
"The group gave a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and advice for actions to be taken or avoided. The group was an external conscience exerting enormous pressure on its individual members.
"In this context, love and hate are best understood as group attachment and group disattachment. Whether emotion or affection is involved is beside the point. The major feeling in love and hate is a feeling of belonging or not belonging, respectively.
"Thus, to love God with all one’s heart is to be totally attached to God. To love neighbor as self is to be as totally attached to people in one’s neighborhood or immediate circle of friends (i.e., fellow Israelites) as one is to one’s family group. This has been and continues to be the normal way of life in the Mediterranean world, unless feuding develops.
"To “hate one’s father, mother,” and others as Luke’s Jesus (Lk 14:26) requires of his followers means to detach oneself from family and join the Jesus group. Paul says the greatest among the virtues faith, hope, and charity is charity, that is, love or attachment to the group.
"The group-attachment aspect of love poses a challenge to individualistically oriented, emotional American believers.
"Jesus identifies love of neighbor with our love of ourselves and of God; he makes it quite clear that love is serving others, even laying down our lives for them.
"Anyone who thinks that love is an easy path should consult the “more excellent way” of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It is a passage, often heard at weddings, that could profitably be read every day and night of married life.
"What is love? Love is patience. It is kindness. It is not jealous or conceited, rude or selfish. It does not take offense, nor is it resentful. It is always ready to trust, to excuse, and to endure whatever comes.
"Love, when we do it, is the eternal in us, what lasts of us. It is God, again made flesh, in our reciprocation, our giving back. Love is ultimately an affirmation, a kiss to the universe freely given.
"True love is the wedding of faith and justice, the bond of transcendence with time. The love of God in whom we move and have our being is the same love made timely by our earthly care.