Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How have you been loved?

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.[1]  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?[2]  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.”[3]  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.[4] 

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.[5]  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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.[8] 

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?

[1] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 148.
[2] De Mello, p. 150-151.
[3] Loosely following D. Mark Davis’ translation of John 3:16-17 at
[4] Numbers 21:4-9.
[5] Genesis 22:1-19.
[6] Ephesians 2:4-7.
[7] De Mello, p. 161.
[8] John 3:19-20.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Being Good Doesn't Save Us

protestors block gate at ICE facility in San Francisco

Being “good” doesn’t save us.   It is the joy of falling in love that saves us.  Jesus didn’t come to make us good people.  He came to share his joy with us.   Too often, we settle for being merely “good;” when, in fact, conventional morality can be the greatest barrier to love. 

God’s love frees us from sin and the fear of death so that we can live creatively and joyfully.  Obeying the rules because we fear God stifles joy and blocks the flow of divine love that energizes life.  Our willingness to live freely and fully is the surest sign of trust in God.  In the words of Anthony De Mello, “When people are joyful they are always good; whereas the good are seldom joyful.”[1] 

Humans are notorious for following the letter of the law while missing the spirit altogether.  The story is told of a Catholic Bishop who decreed that the priests in his diocese were forbidden to have female housekeepers under the age of 50.  During one of his diocesan visits, the Bishop was shocked to discover a priest who thought he was observing the law by keeping two 25 year-old housekeepers.[2]

Does that mean we should ignore moral rules altogether?  Of course not.  Consider the words God spoke to Moses concerning the people’s covenant obligations toward God and each other.  The initial list of ten commandments recorded in the Book of Exodus are well known to us and rightly considered foundational moral teachings. They invite a transformation of the heart that goes much deeper than checking boxes off a list of do’s and don’ts.

In rabbinic tradition, interpretation of Scripture gives special attention to the first and last items in a series of texts or a list of proscriptions.[3]  Applying this procedure to the Ten Commandments, the interpretive key becomes the first commandment – to have no other god than God – and the tenth – not to covet what belongs to your neighbor.  The embrace of a genuine transcendence that frees us from envious rivalry with our neighbors leads to spiritual transformation. 

When we receive our identity from God’s desire for us, rather than from imitating the desire of our neighbors for what they possess, we experience a spiritual breakthrough in awareness that is much more than moral respectability.   We know ourselves loved by God, and receive the fulfillment of our deepest desire by reciprocating that love and becoming transparent to it in relationship with our neighbors.   We experience a joy that is rooted in something deeper than transient feelings or changing circumstances: including changing moral codes. 

The 1st commandment is expressed elsewhere in the Torah in terms of this love: “Hear, O Israel:  the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”[4]  The 10th commandment also is stated positively in the Torah as “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] Jesus approvingly quotes these passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus as the summary and greatest of all the commandments.[6]  

Undergirding all the other moral rules is this invitation to imitate God rather than one another; or, at least, to imitate others only to the extent that they are imitating God.  Jesus tell us, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another and I have loved you.”[7]  Morality must be rooted in this passionate desire to love as God loves, and not by fear of punishment.  Such fear only leads to self-righteousness, and a fanatical desire to punish those who break the rules.   The joy of being in love is what makes genuine goodness possible.   

Perhaps ironically, this passionate love will often bring us into conflict with the moral conventions of our culture.  This was certainly Jesus’ experience.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes his first public appearance at a wedding feast in Cana, where he turns water into wine:  specifically, the water used for rites of purification is turned into the wine that makes our hearts glad.  The kingdom of God often is depicted as a wedding feast where we are united with God in love.  The note of joy is hard to miss, overshadowing our preoccupation with moral or ritual purity. 

It is a bit jarring that Jesus moves directly from the wedding in Cana to the Temple in Jerusalem, where he begins to clean house.  Whereas the other Gospel’s place this symbolic action protesting the guardians of conventional morality at the end of Jesus’ ministry, John moves it to the beginning.  Jesus is appalled by the materialism and economic exploitation at the very center of the religious and political life of Israel.  He drives out the cattle and sheep with a makeshift whip of cords, overturns the tables of the currency exchange, and even orders the dove sellers to clear out.  He rejects any attempt to cover over exploitation and injustice with a veneer of religious legitimation. 

Jesus places himself in direct conflict with the sacrificial system of his day, in which moral convention is founded upon structures of sacrifice:  not just of animals, but of women, the poor, the sick, and the alien.  The priests and scribes, the folks buying and selling in the temple, obeyed the law.  They followed the rules.  They were certain that their goodness would save them.  The problem was that there “goodness” was rooted in rivalrous envy and fear, rather than love.  It led to violence and death, rather than joy.    

Too often, the story of the cleansing of the Temple has been used to justify anger and even violence in the service of protecting conventional structures of morality. St. Augustine cited it to justify the torture and killing of schismatics and heretics; reading the text contrary to the previous three hundred years of interpretation, which understood it to be a nonviolent protest.   The Greek text makes it clear that the whips were used to herd the animals; not to punish humans.  There is nothing in the Gospel accounts indicating that Jesus was angry.[8]

It is Jesus’ absolute commitment to love, the joy of the wedding feast, that brings him into conflict with the guardians of conventional morality.  John’s Gospel wants us to understand the meaning of Jesus in terms of this commitment to love that brings us joy, and the risks that we will undertake for the sake of love:  even if it means being “bad” from the perspective of conventional morality.   Rather than legitimate the structures of sacrifice upon which the Temple is built, literally and figuratively, Jesus signifies its end, replacing it with the sacrifice of his body: creative of a new, joyful form of human community based on sacrificial love rather than sacrificial violence.

Hundreds of protestors gathered downtown last Wednesday in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in response to the arrest and detainment of more than 200 undocumented Bay Area immigrants.  I thought about the students at June Jordan High School with whom I met last month, who spoke movingly of the sacrifices their parents made to bring them to this country; risking everything, defying conventional morality, for the sake of the joy of love. 

One of these students, “Jorge,” is a DACA recipient (for now), whose parents are undocumented.  When he became aware of the threat of deportation his parents face, it filled him with great anxiety and sadness.  He felt threatened, outcast and alone.  He bravely attended the protest on Wednesday, accompanied by our sister, Lorena Melgarejo.   When he looked around at the hundreds of people, his eyes widened with inexplicable wonder as he said to her, “They really love us, don’t they?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that for the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.[9]  Jesus willingly occupied the place of shame in solidarity with the unloved, for the sake of the joy of sharing God’s love with them.  That is what Jorge’s parents did.  That is what the protestors were doing downtown on Wednesday, and those accompanying detainees at their courtroom appearances inside the building.  When morality stands in the way of love, then let us willingly occupy the space of shame for the sake of the joy that is set before us.  As Anthony De Mello laments, “Most people, alas, have enough religion to hate but not enough to love.”[10]   

Being good doesn’t save us.  The joy of falling in love saves us. 

[1] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 92.
[2] De Mello, p. 172.
[3] The following draws from C.K. Barrett’s discussion of covetousness in his A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (p. 141-145) at 
[4] Deuteronomy 6:4-6.
[5] Leviticus 19:18b. 
[6] Mark 12:29-31; cf. Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-28.
[7] John 15:11-12.
[8] See Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15,” Biblical Interpretation, v. 20 (2012), pp. 73-96.
[9] Hebrews 12:1-3.
[10] De Mello, p. 80.