“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”–Matthew 22:37-39

Okay, I have a very un-pastoral confession to make.  There have been people in my circle of family, acquaintances and co-workers through the years that I haven’t liked very much.  Some are self-centered, obnoxious bores. A few are catty, malicious, and negative in general.  A couple spout opinions I find bigoted or just plain wrong.

Only two things keep me from unloading on these people with both barrels.  The first is the commandment Jesus quotes from Leviticus: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The second is a comment my mom made one day after dealing with a particularly trying relative: “Sometimes the unlovable need love the most.”

Religious people through the centuries have spent much time deliberating what Jesus meant by “neighbor”. I think he meant exactly what he said: Show love to those near you.  Most of the time that will mean your family and friends and co-workers, who, God knows, can be a handful at times.  (My dad’s favorite saying was “familiarity breeds contempt”.)

Jesus said to love your enemies.  Who knew we’d be related to so many of them?

Truthfully, it’s much easier to love strangers. That’s why we so eagerly send money to foreign missions, while passing judgment on our neighbor down the street on welfare. Or, carrying on a family grudge for decades.  Or, develop ulcers fretting about that co-worker we just can’t stand.

I hope the people I don’t like believe I’m their friend and someone they can count on.  Loving someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or their choices, or even like being around them.   Loving someone means you hope your actions on their behalf work for their benefit, to build them up.  Maybe even change a few of their bad attitudes.

But, if you want people to listen to you, first you have to show them you care about them.

Sometimes, I admit, there are people I can only love in close proximity for very, very short periods of time.  I find myself repeating the Apostle Paul like a mantra: Love is patient, love is kind.  It is not rude. It is not easily angered.  It keeps no record of wrong.  (God, I’d really like to keep just a little record of wrong.)

If love is an action verb, loving the unlovable is like the Olympics of Christian behavior.  We try.  We try to do better.  We practice.  We train.  Sometimes we earn the gold.  Sometimes we’re disqualified for unsportsmanlike behavior.

But we love, because God first loved us–and God knows, we’re all pretty unlovable at times.