For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47, HCSB)
I’m hurt, and if I’m honest, I’m angry. Sad to say, there isn’t one without the other. When someone lets the sharp words fly, they slice me right off the vine. I’m not abiding any more, I’m cut off— from joy, from peace— shriveling, rotting, drying out. It’s so hard to choose the vine over the justified (in my mind) ugliness. Love? Love them? My lip curls, my heart hardens. I don’t want love. I want revenge.
But that’s not the way I see myself. I think of myself in kindly terms, as a noble-minded, sanctified child of God. Sanctimonious, more like. I’m the emperor with no clothes. I’m the pious Queen of Hearts. Off with her head! If I happen to glance in a mirror, I see a little girl hurt; I want to console, to coddle. It’s a fun house mirror, not true. A real mirror would show— I want to return evil for evil, painful blow for blow. I do not truly love.
Jesus’ prying questions expose a rancidness in my heart I’d rather not acknowledge. He knows, knows I am the one forgiven much but stingy with forgiveness in return. He knows that I need grace absolutely as much as the one who hurt me. After all, I sin against Him, but He gave up everything for me anyway.
Mother Teresa reportedly hung a poem on the wall of her Calcutta children’s home by a fellow named Kent Keith. The poem advises that although our motives may be questioned and our kindness rejected, we should do good, be honest, forgive, and love anyway.
Hmm. Love is hard. Love anyway. Between me and God it’s clear, my heart is a long way from His kind of love.
You might say there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who love you, and those who do not, those who are like you, and those who are very different. One group is generous and gracious, the other often critical and mean-spirited. And yet, according to Jesus, there is only one way for us to respond, His way— with kindness, gentleness, and respect. In short, with love. As He says,
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-44, HCSB)
Jesus’ questions for His audience at the Sermon on the Mount pack so much insight that they easily expand to press on me half a dozen more. Whom do I love, personally, practically, with word and deed? Only the lovable? Do I pride myself on the kindness I lavish on a lucky few? Do I think of myself as praiseworthy for the way I treat my husband, my children, my parents, or my friends? Do I expect a deeply felt thank-you-very-much when I spontaneously serve my household or my church? Well, don’t look at me for reward, Jesus seems to say. To love those who love you is to meet the bare minimum standard. It’s not extraordinary.
What is extraordinary is to love the person who makes me most uncomfortable. The one who just yesterday insulted me, the one who’s hostile and rude. To love both the people who flat-out sin against me and the people who look like they would if they had the chance. To love my political enemies and the irritating ones who won’t leave me alone, the one who betrayed me or the one who lies like a rug. That guy, he’s the one I ought to serve. That’s the Jesus way.
Fine. It’s easy enough to structure my life so that I just don’t cross paths much with unkind or scornful folks— at least not in my free time. Surely the extent of what Jesus expects is civility when it’s unavoidable, right? It’s the Miss Manners gospel— be ye polite. Surely we don’t have to seek out difficult people, sit next to them, invite them over on our day off? Right?
There’s an awkward pause while I wait for an encouraging answer. It never comes. The only answer I hear is the patiently repeated question,
What are you doing out of the ordinary?
Extraordinary love starts when I quit licking my wounds and pray for my adversary. What might she need? What could I give?
As it turns out, loving unlovable people is kinda freeing— it flips my attitude on its head, replaces my grievances with something closer to joy. Who knew? Forgiving, service-oriented, beyond-the-ordinary love isn’t just powerful for the recipient and the watching world. It’s powerfully healing and life-giving for me, too.
In a sermon (“Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957), Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.” Even the most recalcitrant? Maybe Mr. King was thinking about angry Alabamans with their angry, snarling dogs, but I suspect when Jesus issued the challenge, He was thinking, too, about the likes of me.
If you love those who love you…
Whom do I love, anyway? Whom will I love on today?
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