How Not to Prove You Love Someone

Photo credit: <a href="">Raleen Cabrera</a>

Malachi 1:1-5

A word of advice. God’s advice to Israel via Malachi.

“I’ve always loved you,” God says. “But you say, ‘How have you loved us?'”

“Isn’t Esau Jacob’s brother?” God says. “But I loved Jacob and hated Esau. I’ve desolated Esau’s hills, and made the territory he inherited into a wasteland for jackals. As often as Edom says, ‘We may be down, but we’ll rebuild the ruins,'” God says, “They may rebuild. But I’ll keep tearing it down until they realize that they are the evil nation with whom God is eternally irate.

“You will see this with your own eyes and say, ‘God is great, even outside our borders.'”

Here’s an instance of a common misconception codified into Biblical stone. The misconception is this:

To know what love is, you have to know what hate is by comparison.

You’ll often hear it as: “If you didn’t have the bad, you wouldn’t be able to recognize and appreciate what’s good.” Same thing. The idea that the only way you can know about one thing is to know about its opposite.

But it’s just not true. Think about all the people living in tropical parts of the world that know what hot is without ever having experienced cold. Or all the Eskimos who never made it to Puerto Rico or Hawaii to experience what hot is.

You can experience love without proving it by comparison to hate. Good without comparison to bad.

It would be wrong, of course, to say that some of us will never experience hatred or evil. We will experience those things, too. But you’ll certainly be able to recognize them for what they are rather than by what they are the opposite of. Both certainly exist. And yes, they’re opposites. And yes, good and love is preferable over evil and hatred. But one is possible without the other. And who I love isn’t predicated on whether I hate someone else in equal measure. Same goes for you. Same goes for God.

So either God is mistaken about the need to be eternally hateful to some in order to prove God’s love to others, or Malachi is. I prefer to think it’s Malachi.

The Unbearable “Borgness” of Jude

The Borg
The Borg. Image credit: <a href="">Frankula</a>

Jude 17-25

But, dear friends, you must remember the predictions of Jesus’ representatives who told you:

In the end there will be scoffers indulging their own lust.

These worldly spiritless people are the ones causing divisions. But you, dear friends, get pumped up on holy faith. Pray in the holy spirit. Stay in God’s love. Look forward to Jesus’ relief and eternal life. Relieve those who are on the fence. Save the ones who are in the fire by grabbing them out. And relieve others by hating even the clothing they wear.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, who is able to bring you in purity and joy to God’s glory, to the one and only God, our savior, through Jesus, our leader, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before time, now, and forever. Amen.

The advice Jude gives is entirely impossible. In fact, it’s antithetical to the gospel. Not to mention divisive. Christians should remember this before accusing people of other faiths of having hateful things in their scriptures. And maybe consider expunging a few things from their own canon.

It is impossible to stay in God’s love and at the same time hate your enemy even to the point of hating the clothes they wear. (And, no, Jude is not talking about plaid polyester pants.) At least it’s impossible so far as the Jesus who said, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,” is concerned.

The kind of faith Jude is recommending is the kind that gets pumped up on emotion, fear and seething self-righteous anger and results in the very divisions it claims are being caused by “those other people.” Divisions that can only be resolved from their point of view by assimilation or destruction of the other. Jude is like Star Trek’s Borg: “Assimilate or be destroyed.”

Unfortunately, this is the theological position of far too many churches who consider their own cult to be the uniquely pure expression of God’s will for humanity. And paradoxically, the only way to overcome the kind of blindness it creates in its adherents is to love them back in spite of their hating you.

Love them the way Jesus loved and forgave those who called for his crucifixion. They said he was worldly, a defiling spirit, causing divisions. Jesus said that’s what they will do to you if you follow his lead in refusing to assimilate. Hard to do. And people pumped up on hate-filled faith are dangerous. Even murderous. But extending human love in the face of “divine” hatred is the only way to tell who’s really who when all the world around is asking, “Will the real Christians please stand up.”

How You Get Through when Things Fall Apart

life magazine, German ruins1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

You don’t need anyone telling you when all this will happen, friends. You already know that it will be like a thief in the night. When people say “peace and security,” that’s when it’ll hit. It’s just as inevitable as a pregnant woman going into labor. But because you’re not living the night life, the thief won’t surprise you. You’re children of light. For you it’s always daytime, never night. So don’t fall asleep, but stay awake and sober. Those who sleep, sleep at night. Those who drink, drink at night. But you’re daytime people, sober people. Arm yourselves with faith and love, and protect your head with hope.

God’s anger isn’t meant for you. God’s intention is to spare you that. That’s what Jesus’ death was about: keeping us alive, whether we’re awake or asleep. So, keep on cheering each other up.

Of course, except for the quotation about the thief in the night, none of this is true.

  • People take naps.
  • The Thessalonians were just as flawed as the rest of us.
  • People drink around the clock.
  • And Jesus never claimed any of this about his dying to spare his followers persecution, let alone God’s wrath.

In fact, Jesus said just the opposite: “If they did it to me, they’ll do it to you.”

So what use is this passage? Two salvageable bits:

  1. Bad times are sure to come, and often when you least expect them. And especially when overconfidence is the flavor of the day. It happens in markets: dot-com bubble, housing bubble. It happens in government: “mission accomplished.” It happens in religious life: crystal cathedral. It’s no use arguing about whether these ups and downs are divine punishment. Sometimes they are consequences of one’s actions, but just as often, they’re just part of living on the planet. Expect them.
  2. Three of the best ways of dealing with bad times are by responding with faith, hope and love. Even if you did deserve what you got, but especially if you didn’t. Keeping your commitments, keeping your chin up, and reaching out to help someone else get through it. These things go a long way toward improving a bad situation sooner than it otherwise would on its own, alleviating the some of the suffering, and sometimes, keep things from being a lot worse.

Jesus Takes (and Gives) a Bar Exam

exam questionMatthew 22:34-46

The legalists huddled up when they heard that Jesus had confounded the traditionalists. Then one of them, a lawyer, tried to give him a bar exam starting with the question: Which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ is the first, greatest commandment. And there’s another wording of the commandment says the same thing: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else in the law, and everything the truth-tellers have said, is a footnote.”

Then, while they were still gathered there, Jesus asked them a question: Whose protégé do you think will save the world?

“Our nation’s Savior is the CEO of the David Company,” they said.

“Then how is it,” Jesus asked, “that David, Sr. said, as if it were the wisdom of God:

God said to my boss,
Stick with me
And I’ll take care of your competitors.

“What kind of savior takes orders from someone else’s boss?”

No one was able to answer this question. And after that, nobody had the gall to ask him anything else.

It’s tempting to separate this passage into two parts:

  1. The lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer, and
  2. Jesus’ question that’s impossible to answer.

It’s tempting to drop the second part (too confusing), and hang onto the first (love, love, love).

But the lectionary is right to keep the two together in the same reading. Because the answer to part 2 is the same as the answer to the question in part 1. And the lawyer (and many Christians along with him) failed his own bar exam.

What kind of savior takes orders from someone else’s boss?

  • The savior who loves God with everything she’s got.

Which is the same as:

  • the savior who loves his neighbor as himself.

And, Jesus’ question prompts the lawyer (and us) to connect the dots and see that this is also the same as:

  • the one who makes the rules (the boss, the king, the president, the CEO, the Session, the Board of Trustees, the Deacons, and the Pharisees) making the rules so that they take into consideration the well-being even of the competition. (“Oh… that kind of take care of!”)

(Bonus: Until I put your enemies under your feet indicates the consummation of the divine project in which “all things are reconciled” to God. While the traditional interpretation has taken this to mean that the enemies are vanquished, the gospel’s understanding – Jesus’ re-appropriation of the tradition – is that all things are made whole and brought into their proper place. They are not squashed; they are made friends. It’s this misunderstanding of the psalm that stymied the lawyer, the Pharisees, and many others.)

What is the greatest commandment then? As far as Jesus is concerned, it’s to participate in a community where, whoever you are in whatever position, everyone is taken care of. And that means everyone.