Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jesus’ Life and Words Demand a More Economically Just Society

Anyone familiar with the teachings of Jesus knows that he often spoke harshly about those who had wealth. One of his more critical statements illustrates this very point: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Why does it seem that Jesus condemns the rich and favors the poor? There may be several reasons, but three seem certain.

First, Jesus was born into poverty and he chose to continue to live in poverty as an adult. He felt a deep sense of belonging among the poor and he clearly embraced and identified with those who were economically oppressed in his society.

Second, because he so closely associated with the poor, Jesus witnessed firsthand the tremendous gap that existed between the rich and the poor. This gap was the consequence of the rich gaining their wealth through oppressing and neglecting the poor.

Third, Jesus believed that he was ushering in the kingdom of God, and he called all who truly sought the kingdom to give up the possessions that hindered them from entering God’s rule. His statement about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of God implies that Jesus believed that the poor were more receptive to the message of God present rule. In his mind, the rich were too self-sufficient and self-satisfied to heed his message. Thus it is clear from his life and his message that Jesus had a significant problem with how the rich viewed and handled their wealth in light of the revelation of God’s kingdom of economic equality and justice.

One of the more fascinating stories that demonstrates this point is the Parable of the Rich Landowner in Luke 12:13-21. The story is about a rich man who gets richer, and yet whose greed for riches causes his downfall and judgment. But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there are some subtleties in this story that provide a deeper sense of meaning to Jesus’ message about wealth.

What seems to me to be most interesting about this story is that the man is the only character in the parable. In fact, he thinks he exits on his own. He speaks to no one but himself and his conversations are about no one but himself. The pronouns “I” and “My” are frequent in this story and they express not the loneliness of the man, but his satisfaction to live life with no thought of anyone but himself. This wealthy landowner has given no consideration to the God who has blessed him or to his economically depressed neighbors who suffer around him. In fact, he goes so far in his narcissism that he makes plans to live out his days in egocentric comfort.

His words and his actions express the dangers of wealth that Jesus consistently attacked, for in his desire for wealth he has failed to consider God’s kingdom of economic justice and he has failed to recognize the plight of his neighbors. Instead of giving his wealth to those around him who were suffering, he planned to tear down his storage barns in order to build bigger ones to stockpile his plenty.

In recent days we have all heard the tragic news of a financial crisis hitting our nation. While economists will debate the cause of this crisis as well as the possible solutions, I wonder what Jesus might say to those on Wall Street and others who have spent their lives gaining wealth at the expense of the poor. If I understand Jesus’ thoughts about wealth correctly, I would say that Jesus would indeed speak very harshly to those wealthy who have created a crisis that will have a tragic impact on millions.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, instead of seeking economic justice for all, these rich have sought to build bigger barns in which to store their abundance. And yet, what we will find in the near future is that the consequences of their drive for more and more wealth will be born on the backs of those who already struggle to meet their needs and the needs of their families. The richer will be richer and the poor will be poorer.

Yes, our governmental leaders can and must seek a solution to this crisis. But such a solution cannot be effective if the rich are not confronted with their sin. Any permanent solution to this tragic situation must begin with the rich confessing their sin of greed that leads to the oppression and neglect of the poor, and must be followed by authentic and tangible acts of repentance that seek to create a more economically just society.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Loving Our Enemies Requires Authentic Acts of Love

Returning to the subject of Jesus’ command for us to love our enemies, we must ask the more practical question, “How are we to love our enemies?” In other words, in what realistic ways are we to express the transformative and redemptive love of Christ to those who have wronged us? If Christ has commanded us to love our enemies, then such love must be authenticated through tangible action. But through what actions do we express this kind of love?

There are many good deeds we could view as actions of love, but there are some foundational actions that are at the core of the gospel message that God loves the world. In fact, while many acts of goodness could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled for us three primary actions and reactions towards those who were his enemies.

First, we must respond to the harm that is done to us by our enemies with actions that are nonviolent. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the height of conflict between him and his enemies, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness. Thus, a reaction to a wrong done to us by our enemies that is both an authentic and transformative expression of Christ’s love is always nonviolent.

This does not prevent us from seeking justice, but it does call us to seek true justice that breaks a cycle of hatred and violence. Moreover, Jesus’ command for us to turn the other cheek is not a command for us to become weak in the face of evil done against us. Rather, through our turning our cheek, we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for love and peace between us and our enemies.

Second, in loving our enemies we must express to them an unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed against us. God’s forgiveness for us is not based on our own action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the most gravest of sins. Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, then we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.

Yet, forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs against others and against society should be brought to justice. There are offenses and crimes that cannot be excused. However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer. We are not commanded to forgive when someone serves their penalty for a wrong. We are called to forgive apart from that penalty.

Third, through the strength Christ gives us to love our enemies, we must be moved to the point of welcoming and embracing our enemies. Again, we can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who would betray him. Jesus remained in table fellowship with Judas to the very end; an act which served as an expression of hospitality and intimacy. Serving as host, Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would be enemy. While Judas moved ahead with his evil intentions against Jesus, Jesus remained true to the character of God by continuing his hospitality and intimacy with Judas. Though Judas rejected Jesus, Jesus refused to reject Judas, and instead, he embraced his enemy.

There is a prevailing sentiment in our diverse culture that says we need to be tolerant of others. Tolerance, however, is not an authentic expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ calls us to love others through the transformative power of welcome and embrace. Only by extending welcome and embrace do we live out the truthfulness of Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

To be sure, these are challenging steps for us to take. But the gospel is challenging, and indeed, it is threatening. But loving our enemies is part of the gospel of discipleship. If we only voice an insincere and distant love for enemies in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are right with God, then we have failed to love our enemies and we have failed to live the gospel.
Faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a mental assent to a set of propositions about who Jesus was.

Authentic faith can only be expressed by taking up the cross and following Jesus. Discipleship is a call to die to ourselves, including our need for vengeance against our enemies, and a call to enact God’s redemptive and transformative love for all people through nonviolence, forgiveness, and embrace.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Through Christ We Find the Strength to Love Our Enemies

There is no doubt that Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies. Moreover, there is no room for negotiation with Jesus on this point. No intelligent person can present a persuasive argument against taking his command seriously. Indeed, while we attempt to evade Jesus’ clear teaching by placing limitations on his command, specifically related to who we love and how much we love, these limitations cannot be accepted by those who seek to follow the teachings of Christ with great sincerity.

But we are all human, and there are times when all of us find it difficult to love others, especially our enemies. We must be honest with ourselves that this is a very difficult, if not an impossible thing to do. But if Jesus’ command is clear and non-negotiable, which will often result in our utter failure to be obedient, then why would he command us to do this? If it is difficult and often impossible for us to love our enemies, why would Jesus offer such a stringent command? Has Jesus only set us up to fail?

While loving one’s enemy is a difficult and often impossible struggle, viewing Jesus’ command as unattainable misses something deeply theological that is rooted in the heart of the gospel of grace. In our finite human existence, we believe that the strength to love others is found in ourselves and in our ability to muster up a forced love. We hear Jesus’ command, believe it to be true, but grit our teeth and force what is humanly impossible to do; love someone who has hurt us. But such a view of Jesus’ command will certainly lead us to fail.

The ability to love others, and especially our enemies, comes not from our own strength. Rather, we find the strength to love our enemies through the character and image of Christ that dwells in us. In other words, our love for others comes not from our human capacity to love. Our human capacity to love is limited and will lead us to fail. It is only through God’s empowering grace, given to us through God’s limitless love, that we find the power to love others, even our enemies. Our strength to love others can only be discovered in our identity in Christ.

This is the importance of the baptismal imagery we find in the New Testament. Through our baptism into Christ Jesus, we have become fundamentality transformed from the inside out, and our experience of this God empowered transformation has brought about a new identity in Christ, one whose foremost characteristic is love. Our love flows not from our natural existence as humans, but from our experience of God’s enabling grace and our existence as new creations in Christ.

This means that we do not love out of legalistic obedience to Jesus’ command. We are not called to muster up a forced love for others. Rather we love as a part of our participation in God’s love for the world. We bear the image of Christ to the world, and the image of Christ is love.

Thus, to express love toward others, particularly our enemies, is not simply a choice to love when we feel like loving. Loving our enemies as God has loved us, means that we act in love towards others as a way of being and living. Love is the fundamental character of God, and thus it is the fundamental characteristic of being a follower of Christ.

When Jesus speaks about loving our enemies, he speaks about a love that comes not from this world, but from God. Thus, the love that Christ teaches and shares with us is a revolutionary love that has the power to transform even the hardest of hearts. It is the kind of love that is alien to our world; but it is the kind of love that is, as Dr. Martin Luther King famously stated, “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

There are those who would argue that we cannot and should not love our enemies, whether on a personal or a global level. They argue that love will not change the relationship. But this argument is theologically short-sighted. For, if we believe that love is the prime characteristic of God, and that the love of God is powerful enough to change the world, and if we have embraced and now bear that love in our new identity in Christ, then we must believe that the love we share with others is the power through which God seeks to love and redeem all humanity, even our enemies.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Jesus Modeled What It Means To Love Our Enemies

A few years ago, as I was teaching on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, a very perceptive young man asked me, “How far should we go to love our enemies?” Not only was this a thought provoking question, it was one I had never seriously considered until that moment. Certainly I understood that Jesus had called his followers to love their enemies, but I had never pondered to what extent I was to live this command.

One thing that makes the command so challenging is that Jesus does not qualify which enemies we are to love. Nor is he explicit in how far we are to go in loving them. Can we pick and choose which ones we are to love? Can we decide on how much love we are to show them? These are relevant questions for us to consider, but Jesus’ command to love our enemies does not help us one bit in deciding how far we are to go in doing this.

Whenever I find myself struggling to come to grips with one of Jesus’ more difficult commands, I often discover clarification by looking at what Jesus does; how he responded to the challenge of doing God’s will. After all, if I claim to be a follower of Christ, it only makes sense that I emulate the way he lived. Jesus is not only the one who makes our way possible to God; he also acts as the example of true faithfulness before God. Jesus is the paradigmatic disciple of God’s will.

Thus, in struggling with the student’s question concerning the lengths we are to go in loving our enemies, I need to find incidents in the life of Jesus that give me guidance in understanding the command he has clearly set forth. While we could point to various stories of Jesus’ love for others, and indeed, the whole story of the incarnation itself is a story of Christ’s love for humanity, there is a very interesting and underlying twist in the account of Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet, which may very well prove to be an answer to this perplexing question.

We often hear sermons preached from this scene that focus on the portrayal of Jesus as the true servant, who sets an example of service for his followers. Undeniably, this is the crux of the story. What we may not see, however, is a subtle, but powerful, detail of the story; the interaction between Jesus and the one who sets himself up as the enemy of Jesus, Judas.

We are very familiar with Judas’ story. He seems to have followed Jesus with hopes that Jesus was the political Messiah who would stir zealous passion in the people to rise up against Rome. We also know that Judas’ dreams did not become reality, as Jesus talked of another kingdom, one characterized by peace, love and justice, and not by arrogance, violence and war. It was this realization that may have caused Judas to plot with the religious leaders and hand him over to their authority. John 13:2 makes it clear that Judas’ plan was in the works even as they gathered for the Passover.

What is interesting about this scene, however, is that when Jesus takes up the symbol of a house slave, the towel, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, nothing is said about him passing over Judas. In fact, if we read it carefully, we find that Judas does not leave the table until after Jesus had completed his act of service. Are we to assume that Judas was a recipient of Jesus’ service? Does the story lead us to accept the distasteful fact that Jesus washed the feet of every disciple, including Judas? If so, then the follow-up question is why would Jesus wash the feet of any of his disciples, and especially the one who would become his enemy?

The answer may be close at hand in John 13:1. The verse can be understood in two ways. First, it might be translated, “He loved them to the end.” Or it could read, “He showed them the full extent of his love.” Regardless of which reading is more correct, both capture the essence of Jesus’ act of love towards his disciples, including the one who became his enemy.

Notwithstanding the evil plot and action soon to be taken by Judas, Jesus continued to express his complete love for Judas to the last possible moment. In the face of betrayal by one of his own, Jesus showed persistent love. While evil was being plotted all around him, Jesus returned love.

Paul declares in Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” He continues, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Like Jesus, Paul is not unaware of the evil people will do to others. But, as Jesus both taught and modeled for us, retribution toward those who do evil is not the way God calls us to respond. Rather, Jesus taught and modeled for us that loving our enemies means always seeking to love them through repeated acts of goodness that express the limitless love Christ demands of us.