|Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal"|
How have you been loved?
A disciple very much wanted to renounce the world, but he claimed that his family loved him too much to let him go. “Love?” said his Guru. “That isn’t love at all. Listen . . .” And he revealed a yogic secret to the disciple whereby he could simulate the state of death. The next day the man was dead to all outward appearances and the house rang with the cries and wailing of his family.
The Guru then showed up and told the weeping family that he had the power to bring the man back to life if someone could be found to die in his place. Any volunteers? To the “corpse’s” astonishment, every member of the family began to bring forth reasons why it was necessary to keep their own lives. His wife summed up the sentiments of all with the words, “There’s really no need for anyone to take his place. We’ll manage without him. Sometimes, we confuse being needed with being loved. But we don’t love people because we need them. Love is not transactional. It is sacrificial.
“Do you think you will be able to give my daughter what she wants?” a man asked his daughter’s boyfriend. “I certainly do, sir,” he replied. “She says that all she wants is me.” No one would call it love if what she wanted was money. Why is it love if what she wants is you? Sometimes, we confuse being desired with being loved. Love is not a feeling of attraction. It is an act of the will.
Love is the decision to seek the good of the beloved, regardless of whether, or not, they are “desirable” or “deserve” it. How have you been loved?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nicodemus how God loves us. “God loved the world in this way: God gave the only begotten son, in order that anyone who trusts in him would not be destroyed but have life in the age to come. For God did not send the son into the world in order that he might judge the world, but in order that the world might be rescued through him.” I’ve followed Mark Davis’ more literal translation to highlight a few points.
First, Jesus is telling us the way in which God demonstrated love for the world, not how much God loved us. It is a qualitative, not a quantitative description. This may seem like a fine point, but it underscores that love is not a feeling but rather an action. It isn’t that “feeling” loving is a bad thing, but that it isn’t enough. How is love enacted? That is what Jesus is getting at here.
Secondly, Jesus is telling us that God’s love is demonstrated by giving his son. We know from the reference earlier to the son being lifted up, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, that the “giving” of the son refers to Jesus’ impending death on the cross. Here we see the sacrificial nature of love: it is about giving ourselves away.
In this discourse, the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial love is expressed by means of the de-mythologizing of two Old Testament stories. In the Book of Numbers, we are told that God sent serpents to kill the people of Israel when they complained about the manna – the bread of life – that God provided to sustain them. The people repented, and God instructed Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole and lift it up; when the people saw it, they were healed.
Jesus death – his being lifted up on the cross – is like the bronze serpent; it is the sign of our refusal of God’s gracious provision, which leads to injustice and death. The de-mythologizing move here is that it is God’s son who suffers as an innocent victim because of the injustice of human culture; rather than the people who suffer because God punishes them. It is human rivalry, envy and violence that create injustice and death: not God.
This is reinforced by an allusion to another Old Testament story: Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in obedience to God’s command. Recall that in that story, God provides a ram at the last minute and Isaac is spared. Jesus tells us that instead of God demanding a sacrifice from us, God’s love is demonstrated by offering a sacrifice for us. God gives us a son, rather than taking one from us. It is we who require sacrificial love, not God.
Finally, Jesus emphasizes that this self-giving movement is not about judgment, but rather about healing. Jesus gives himself away so that we might have life in the age to come; so that we might enjoy the good life that God desires for us. Love seeks the good for the beloved.
Throughout this discourse, Jesus makes it clear that God is in the saving business, not the judging and punishing business. We judge ourselves and experience the consequences of our judgment when we refuse to trust God and refuse to live in the light that would expose our complicity with evil. Evil must be exposed so that it can be healed. We must see the serpent – acknowledge the consequences of our refusal to love and trust God – to be healed.
Jesus’ death on the cross is the world’s judgment upon itself, the revelation of our culture’s injustice and violence. It is the revelation of our profound need for healing. God’s rescue operation begins with Jesus’ act of solidarity with the victims of history, so that we can no longer deny the reality of evil in the world. It is the act of sacrificial love par excellence that wakes us up to our need for this healing love.
In Jewish tradition, there is a distinction made between the current age – marked by injustice, oppression and violence – and the life of God’s age to come – marked by justice, freedom and peace. What we translate as “eternal life” in the New Testament refers not to life in another world, in heaven, but rather to redeemed life in this world. Jesus comes, not to judge us, but to rescue us from the power of evil so that might live in this age to come.
St. Paul speaks of this when he writes that, in spite of our complicity with evil, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
This is the language of the mystics. We participate in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as we move from the death-dealing life of the present age to the life of the age to come that God promises: God’s reign of justice, freedom, and peace. When we recognize our need for healing and place our trust in Jesus’ sacrificial love, we are raised up with Jesus into a life of self-giving service for the sake of the healing of the world. We participate together in the creation of the life of the world to come.
There is a story told about the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes. Diogenes was standing at a street corner one day, laughing like a man out of his mind. “What are you laughing about?” a passerby asked. “Do you see that stone in the middle of the street? Since I got here this morning, ten people have stumbled on it and cursed it. But not one of them took the trouble to remove it so others wouldn’t stumble.”
Seeing the serpent - acknowledging the crucifixion of the innocent – isn’t enough. Neither is merely cursing the evil we deplore. We must decide to remove the stumbling blocks that cause suffering. That is how we participate in the life of God’s age to come. Jesus invites us to “do the truth” – to expose evil, beginning with ourselves, so that it may be healed by the light of God’s love.
We begin, always, with the question, “How have you been loved?” But realizing how we have been loved by God, we must ask also, “How have you loved?”
How have you loved?
 Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 148.
 De Mello, p. 150-151.
 Loosely following D. Mark Davis’ translation of John 3:16-17 at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2015/03/facing-evil-coming-to-light.html.
 Numbers 21:4-9.
 Genesis 22:1-19.
 Ephesians 2:4-7.
 De Mello, p. 161.
 John 3:19-20.