Nothing in Return

Nothing in Return

Fourth Sunday of the Year. Fr John O’Connor preaches on the complexity of real love.

As a boy I came to understand something of the qualities of love from a variety of sources. Among these were the stories told to us as children, stories that conveyed to us truths more profound than we could have articulated at such a tender age. Among the stories I remember most vividly was Oscar Wilde’s, ‘The Happy Prince’.

It tells of ‘The Happy Prince,’ who lived a life sheltered from human suffering. In time he died and his courtiers erected a statue of him on a tall column overlooking the city. He was gilded all over; for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on the hilt of his sword.

From such a high vantage point the Happy Prince saw for the first time life as it really is. Seeing people in distress he asked his friend, a swallow, to bring the riches that adorned his statue to those who needed help. To a seamstress, thin and overworked, and whose child lay sick in the next room, the swallow took the ruby that adorned the hilt of his sword. To a malnourished writer in his garret, the swallow took a sapphire. To a match-girl, who had let her matches fall in the gutter, distressed that her father will soon beat her, the swallow brought the other sapphire.

The sapphires given away, the Happy Prince could see no more. And so the little swallow becomes the eyes of the Happy Prince, telling the prince what he saw. Asked by the Happy Prince, the swallow took the leaves of gold from the statue leaf by leaf to the poor of the city, and we are told that the children’s faces grew rosier, and that they now laughed and played games.

Unbeknownst to us as children, such tales subtly furnished us with concepts we would only begin to understand properly as adults. At that age we understood love in a way children understand love. But we were given what was needed to help us start on our voyage through life, where experience and maturity would hopefully bring us to a deeper understanding of what love really is.

And this understanding is relevant to how we read the Gospels. Insights gained from childhood can play a part in how we understand the life and ministry of Jesus, alerting us to what we can easily miss. This is the case even if a tale such as ‘The Happy Prince’ might appear to have almost nothing in common with a gospel passage like the one we have this Sunday.

Here Jesus encounters a man possessed by an evil spirit, and in his combat with the evil spirit, Jesus silences it, stopping it from revealing more about who Jesus is. Here we see something in common between the Gospel and the tale. The Happy Prince seeks only to alleviate the sufferings of others, not seeking acclaim or asking anything in return. Likewise, Jesus also seeks only to alleviate the sufferings of an unfortunate man, not looking for anything in return or for acclaim, indeed silencing the evil spirit who might have led to praise and acclamation.

If the purest and deepest love is love that seeks no acclaim or anything in return, then such love is shown here by Jesus. What is revealing about ourselves and how we understand love is that we can see without difficulty the depth and purity of the love shown by the Happy Prince, but fail to recognise the presence of a love that is of the utmost depth and purity in the conflict of Jesus with the evil spirit, liberating a person in distress.

We can sometimes fail to recognise love because is all too easy to limit our understanding of love to what is comforting, mild, gentle and warm. But this is a narrow understanding of love, an understanding of love that has not grown into adulthood.

Faced with the man possessed by an evil spirit, Jesus did what he had to do. Unfortunately, perhaps, that involved entering into conflict. Similarly, if we look at the lives of some of the saints known for their works of charity, we see that they were often men and women prepared to enter into the fray in defence of the poor and suffering. In this too there was no seeking after acclaim or asking for anything in return.

When we have a narrow understanding of love, we can fall into the trap of thinking of Jesus as loving on some occasions, but tough and forceful, and hence less than truly loving, on other occasions. In the same way, we can overlook the presence of the most profound love in people who do not pander to sentiment, but who care only about what is good and true.

Like all realities of great depth, love is multi-faceted, rich and complex. Like all realities of great depth, coming to understand love requires time and patience. More correctly, coming to understand love is a journey that continues throughout our lives. So let us remember that love of the greatest depth and purity, love that does not seek acclaim or ask anything in return, is a love we may fail to recognise. Indeed, it may be these very qualities that hide it from our sight; but it is such qualities as these that make it really present. 

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 | Mark 1:21-28

Fr John O'Connor is Regent of Studies of the English Province and Regent of Blackfriars, Oxford.