The Gift of Love

This week, my husband and I had two houseguests… our niece and nephew. They had the distinct honor of being able to have a sleep over at our house and boy, were they excited!

For the most part, I think that excitement came from hanging out with their favorite aunt and uncle. But a few hours into their visit, I got a hint of a different reason for their joy.

Our nephew loves to play with the wii. They have one at his house, but he is limited to 20 minutes per day of playtime. We were attempting to enforce that rule, but he stood up and looked at us very seriously and said: But this isn’t my dad’s house. His rules don’t work here!

Every rule that governed their lives at home – about bedtime, playtime, what they had to eat, what they could wear – these two assumed went out the window when they came over to Aunt Kaky and Uncle Spicy’s house. We were going to love them and spoil them and let them get away with anything and everything… or so they thought.

I think that many times, in our Christian faith, we too believe that rules go out the window when we believe in Jesus. More than a few times in my life, I have heard people say that all of the law and judgment of the Old Testament is done away with when Jesus comes. It’s like we magically are transported to a new world where all the tired rules from the past are done away with. We didn’t like all of those rules about not wearing poly-cotton blends, or staying away from shellfish, anyway. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth sounds pretty barbaric in our minds. And really… how can we be expected to not covet our neighbor’s possessions when their new car looks so nice and we want one just like it?!
It doesn’t help that Jesus says things like “I have come not to do away with the law but to fulfill it,” but then in the next breath he is breaking some Sabbath law by eating grain out in the field and saying things like “the law is made for man, not man for the law.”

How do we know what rules to follow? How do we keep ourselves from being too legalistic, without slipping in the other direction and becoming too lax in our moral compass?

It’s simple. We keep at the front of our minds the standard by which all laws are held: love.

The mixing of materials like polyester and cotton has nothing to do with love or how we treat our neighbors… we consider laws like this to be ceremonial by the standard of love we aren’t too concerned with them in our daily lives in the 21st century.
But there are many other laws that have everything to do with love. Like the ones Paul reminds us of in Romans: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet… in each of these laws, we are faced with relationships. And love is the absolute standard for how we are to behave.

In Romans 13:8, Paul writes that we should owe no one anything, except to love one another. In saying this, he teaches “that our highest obligation toward men is our obligation to love them.” (Bob Deffinbaugh). More than our obligation to do the right thing, we are to love.

Of course, when love becomes your highest priority… the right actions naturally follow.

Because Love fulfills the law. When we act in love towards God and our neighbor, we are already living out the law. An act of love is never to commit adultery or murder. The love of Christ that should rule our hearts would never steal or covet.

Each of these acts would be unloving because they harm other people. Adultery destroys lives. Coveting is “desiring my good and my gain at my neighbor’s expense.” (Deffinbaugh)

Murder not only takes the life of another, but rips away from family members the life of a beloved. Stealing harms the economic wellbeing of our neighbors.

Bob Deffinbaugh summarizes what Paul teaches us in Romans 13 by saying: “We are to view our neighbor from the perspective of love. When we do, we will seek his good, avoid doing what is harmful to him, and thus fulfill the law.”

Love seeks the good for another. It doesn’t matter who they are – whether rich or poor, friend or enemy, neighbor or stranger. Love always seeks the good for others… even at our own expense.

That is the love that Christ showed us. Unconditional love. Self-sacrificial love. Love that bends down in service to others. Love shown to the stranger, to the sinner, to the rich and to the proud. Love that gives life.

Love like Jesus loved.

Love as if people, not laws, were more important.

Because the truth of the matter is, there are days when we will face a conflict between the laws of our fathers and the needs of humanity.

St. Thomas Aquinas once said that if a family is starving and the rich will not share their abundance with the poor – it is justified for a mother to steal to feed her children.

I think that Aquinas was able to make this bold and radical claim, because every time Jesus faced a conflict between the laws of the righteous and showing compassion and love to a sinner – he always came down on the side of love.

One of the most recognized examples of this is when Jesus came across a woman who was about to be stoned to death. In John, chapter 8, Jesus was confronted with one of the 10 commandments: a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery.

Now, the first thing I wonder when I hear this passage is where the other offender was. If she was caught in the very act… certainly there was a man around somewhere who was also deserving of this same sentence. According to the law, both were required to be stoned.

But the man is nowhere to be found and the crowd is angry and ready to enforce the law to its fullest extent. But when Jesus enters their midst, he talks the crowds down, and helped her back on her feet. And then he spoke these amazing words to her: I do not condemn you – go and sin no more.

In his short and simple statement, Jesus shows us how love and the law fit together. God’s laws have been given to protect us. They are given to show us the good and holy ways to live. But love is always the standard.

When he says, “I do not condemn you – go and sin no more.” He is not saying that what she did wasn’t wrong. And he’s not saying that she isn’t responsible for her actions… because he asks her to live differently. He isn’t even saying that he accepts her apology, because nowhere in the text does this woman say anything, much less beg for forgiveness.

No, he simply forgives her. He loves her. He accepts her – no matter what she has done. When it comes to the law, the first thing Christ does is love. And then he asks her to respond to that love that he has shown by allowing him to change her life. (based on work by Gary DeLashmutt)

Yesterday, I drove to my cousin’s wedding in Iowa Falls and along the side of HWY 21, I saw a sign that said: “Hell is for deadbeat moms”. This being Father’s Day, it could have just as easily said: Hell is for deadbeat dads. All across our nation, all across the world, the first impulse of many Christians is to remind folks of their sin and to condemn them for it.

Most of these images are pictures not of love, but of anger… of hate… of judgement.

It is easy to do these things.

It is easy to point out the speck in the eye of our brother and ignore the log in our own eye.

It is easy to hate. It is easy to give up on someone and tell them they are going to hell… maybe even easier
still to send them to hell for their sin with a few stones or a firing squad.

But Jesus looks down upon the one who has done wrong and says – I do not condemn you…. Go and sin no more. Get up… let me help you.

Loving our neighbors is hard.

Loving the Lord with all of our heart, and soul and mind and strength is hard.

And unlike my niece and nephew, who thought they were getting a free pass to do whatever they wanted, we know that abiding in God what is asked of us may actually be harder than simply following the rules.

We will fail. Constantly we will fail in this charge to love.

But when we do, Christ will bend over and look us in the eye and say: I love you, I do not condemn you… get up… go…. And sin no more.

Amen.

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