“Love Me Tender,” warbled Elvis Presley in one of his best-known songs from 1956. Whatever the source of inspiration for this timeless classic, it echoes the second exhortation of the prophet Micah in Scripture, who tells us to “act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
To love tenderly is always linked to justice because it is a requirement of justice. It is necessary to keep this balance between justice and mercy to avoid an emphasis of one at the expense of the other. Many of us prefer mercy to justice. Mercy seems softer and nicer, while justice seems tougher and harsh. But we should never compromise on either of them. Why? Because God is both just and merciful. In the words of St. Catherine of Siena, “If justice were without mercy, it would be joined to the darkness of cruelty and would be injustice rather than justice” (Letter to Pope Urban VI). Justice, by itself, is not enough. It must be open to a deeper power, which is love.
All people, whether they believe in God or not, have a deep need to love and be loved. It is the one truth that we all agree on and therefore is the bridge that connects us to everyone. Even when we are struggling to talk about faith to our friends and family members, love is always a route into a deeper conversation. Recently, a lady in my parish shared her struggle to talk about God and faith to her children and grandchildren. In response, I simply passed on advice that was once given to me. “Tell them what you love.” This is evangelization—telling people what we love. Look at St. Peter as he gave the first-ever homily after Pentecost—he couldn’t help but tell the people about the One he loved (Acts 2:14-39).
Like justice, love begins with the God who is love. In the words of St. John, “We have come to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). The first Christians came to believe this because it was revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, the God of faithfulness and mercy from the Old Testament had revealed himself fully. Again, St. John sums it up best: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus’ death on the cross revealed not just God’s judgment on the world but also his mercy that poured out from his wounded side.
On the night before he died, Jesus left us the great Gospel command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). He asked us to give ourselves away in love as he had done for us. We note from the Lord’s words that love is what we do and not just something that we feel. In our culture today, we hear of people looking for love and finding love. But for followers of Christ, love is not something we find or a feeling we have. Like justice, love is something we do. It is “willing the good of the other.”
Yet the command to love is not a cold command given by a superior officer. The command to love is always according to the measure of “as I have loved you.” And how did Jesus love us? By loving us first and giving us nothing less than himself. For us, the love of God always comes first. It is what Pope Francis calls “the primacy of grace” (The Joy of the Gospel). Before ever we are asked to say or do anything, the personal love of God comes first. In the words of St. John’s first letter: “God loved us first” (1 John 4:19). In Christ, we contemplate the love of God that does come first and that we encounter as transforming mercy. Here is the love that was fully revealed on the cross of Calvary when it was lifted up and exalted; and it continues to draw many people to itself. Here is the love that is re-presented every time we celebrate the Eucharist, where Christ, in love, gives himself to us, totally and completely. And it is only by contemplation of this divine love that we can hope to love in the same way.
This love of God is always engaging. When it encounters us, it shakes us up and calls us out of our comfort zones. Love is not a fuzzy feeling. It sends us out on mission. It sends us to help the poor, to seek justice, and to serve the common good. Love claims us and sends us to where God wants us to be.
Finally, we note from Micah’s words that we are to love tenderly. Let’s look again at the Lord Jesus. He loved people tenderly. Their needs touched him deeply. When he first met Peter, we are told he “stared hard at him” (John 1:42) as if he was looking right into his soul. He did the same after Peter denied him three times (Luke 22:61). When he asked the rich young man to follow him, we are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him (Mark 10:21). When Jesus saw the funeral of the boy who was the only son of his mother, the Lord “felt sorry for her” (Luke 7:12-13). When he saw the crowds, he felt sorry for them because they were “harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). For the Lord, love was something that flowed from his heart. It was not just something that came from the head but from his gut. Tender love connects with the suffering of another and allows us to suffer with them. That is why we too must stay close to Jesus and love tenderly like him.
That is why Pope Francis, ever since his election over ten years ago, has spoken beautifully about the nature of God’s mercy as tenderness itself. It is a love that is not afraid of emotions and knows how to weep. In a moving quote from Christus Vivit, addressed to young people, he writes:
Those of us who have a reasonably comfortable life don’t know how to weep. Some realities in life are only seen with eyes cleansed by tears. I would like each of you to ask yourself this question: Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is starving, on drugs or on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated or exploited as a slave by society?CV 76
To love tenderly is also closely connected to kindness. The power of human kindness is underestimated in what it can do and the hearts of stone it can move. As a priest, I have seen this time and time again when the kindness you show to someone who is elderly, sick, or in trouble not just touches the person themselves but draws in their parents, families, and children.
Even if our society became perfect just overnight, there would still be the great need for love—for people to know that others care and that we are never alone. Our prayer today is that of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who once wrote of Jesus: “I do not understand souls who fear a friend so tender” (Letter 226) and prayed that there be “love at the heart of the Church.” May the Holy Spirit of tender love fan into a flame the gift of God’s presence within us so that we might love not just like Jesus but with him. And we pray that we might love everyone and all things in his name.