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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Second Thoughts: Love is not jealous (A13O)

I suspect a lot of gospel readers would have liked to have skipped the first half of last Sunday's gospel. I know for sure a lot of us would rather not have listened to it. It's not that I want the gospel to say what I want it to say, that I don't agree with Jesus. It's that what the gospel actually says can't be what I heard, because it would indicate inner contradiction in the message of Jesus. The first half of the gospel would be teaching that Jesus is a jealous lover, a rival for the affection of the disciple with the very people that God put into one's life for all the reasons that we know family and friends exist. The second half would indicate that there is a "reward" at the end of the stick of obedience, both taking the gospel out of the realm of love (i.e. to do a thing for a reward is not doing it for love) and creating a debt that God has to pay for people doing what they are supposed to do. Both of those things are abhorrent to me. 

The juxtaposition of "love me" and "worthy of me" just doesn't work in English, and it certainly doesn't work in any language coming out of the mouth of the same Christ whose Sermon on the Mount (echoed by a passage a couple of weeks ago) told us that God cares for us more than ravens and sparrows and lilies, and we shouldn't worry about anything, and God is like a father to us, that, in fact, 
I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
So what does this egalitarian love have to do with worthiness?

As I said last week in my Wednesday post, we know from experience that the best kind of love we've ever known has exactly nothing to do with worthiness. It's a bolt out of the blue, as the saying goes, that stops us in our tracks and has us babbling "Hallelujah" like David and Samson and the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in the eponymous and ubiquitous tune of the same name. What we know is that love doesn't depend on the beloved, it comes from the lover, and it is a gift, and in its only genuine form, requires nothing in return, and doesn't even nod toward worthiness. Nobody is worthy. Or rather, everyone is worthy because of the created spark of the divine in every person, but when the lover is in touch with that holy fire, worthiness isn't even up for discussion. It's a complete non-issue. Love is given without restriction, it is created from nothing like the best and rest of the universe. It shares in the Being of the one from whom all loving flows. Love, in the beautiful, if Gertrude-Steinian poetry of a joy-drunk Lin-Manuel Miranda, "is love is love is love is love is love is love." Love empowers a response, it doesn't demand it; love enables change, it doesn't expect it. 


Love, says St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, is not jealous. It is unthinkable that Jesus, the "visible face of God's mercy," would have placed such a strange restriction on his love to his closest disciples. If "love is not jealous" is meant to describe the relationship among members of the Corinthian church community to whom St. Paul was writing, certainly it is an attribute of the God who is love. God is patient. God is kind. God does not put on airs, is not jealous.

So what is Jesus saying when he says…
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his crossand follow after me is not worthy of me.
This whole section of Matthew must be tied to the message that MT is trying to get to the church for which the gospel is being compiled. Perhaps, as John Meyer suggests, the community is split along generational lines, causing rifts in the church, during a time of persecution. Chapter ten of Matthew began with the commissioning of the disciples to preach the gospel, with a no-nonsense warning that they should not expect to be received with universal praise. Ultimately it is not about Jesus that the warnings are given, but about the gospel that he is preaching, and how it is received or not by the community. To all the warnings in this chapter about persecution and the possibility of being rejected, Jesus gives the divine advice from the Jewish scriptures: Do not be afraid. 

For me, the second section of the gospel is just as problematic: the promise of reward for doing good. On one hand, this is straight Deuteronomic morality: if you do good, you get rewarded. If you do evil, evil will befall you. Jesus does not usually teach this way, in fact, his teaching about God in chapter 5, quoted above, is that God lets the sun and rain fall upon the good and bad alike; he makes a parable about weeds and wheat growing together until the final harvest when God will sort it all out with a wisdom more discerning than our scythes and uprooting. Jesus is always more aware that bad things happen to good people, and bad people sometimes seem to be the ones blessed. His concept of God and morality is much more nuanced than the most popular brand of Judaism. As one teacher put it, with the book of Job (and much of the wisdom literature), the Deuteronomist should have died a quick death in the 3rd century BCE. But we seem to be hard-wired for the reward and punishment schema, and we just can't quit it. 

It seems to me that a way of reading "reward" might be to understand it as the natural result of acting the way we were made to act. We're children of God. We're made from love, we're made to love. We're made for generosity, to look out for one another. When we act according to the way we're made, we're happy. It's not a reward. We're just not kicking against the grain. We're floating on a downstream river of loving energy, not swimming upstream and doing everything we can to torpedo our destiny and betray our nature. "A good tree can't bear bad fruit, and a bad tree can't bear good fruit." It's not a matter of reward and punishment; it's a matter of being who we are meant to be, and we are all meant to be sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, who care for each other and the world in the way we wish we were being treated, even if we aren't being treated that way, and we act that way toward everyone, even if they're not in the same game. 

Finally, by the time the gospel of Matthew was written, the "normalcy of civilization" was beginning to swirl back around the path through the sea that Jesus and the gospel had opened up. Human beings really don't want a God of distributive justice, a God of freedom and love. We want a god of talion justice, who takes at least an eye when an eye is taken; we want a god who gives us ours, whether or not it has to be taken from someone else. We've been treated badly, we think. We deserve better. God will give it to us, and just to be sure, we create a god who do just what we want. This god, probably an Assyrian-Egyptian-Greek-Roman hybrid with a big army, a palace with a prison, and a phalanx of accountants and torturers, was ready to step in and fill the void. Jesus who said in the Sermon on the Mount that "whoever calls his brother a fool shall be liable to judgment" became the Jesus who called the scribes and Pharisees fools, murderers, and whitewashed tombs. Jesus whose parables proclaimed that God will sort out the good and bad in the end cursed, in the same gospel, towns and villages and fig trees. The further we get away from Jesus, from Paul's letters to the Corinthians and Romans, and from the gospel of Mark, the more the message contains hints of compromise with Rome and gospel of Caesar, of an expedient if bloody peace on earth through violence, and a Jesus who sounds, now and then, like the petulant, narrow-minded preachers that overpopulate the airwaves of the twenty-first century. 

But the resurrection happened, and the Risen One came back without any word of revenge, still proclaiming God's merciful love and universal forgiveness at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Spirit of God was visibly loosed upon the world in a few fallible women and men utterly changed by their experience of their rabbi, dead and risen. Empowered by their experience, they went out to persuade people everywhere that there was a better world available to anyone willing to turn toward their neighbor and see a child of another God. The "reward" of conversion, of turning from the worship of Caesar to the God of Jesus, was life in a community of equals, of living in a new family that lived in faith of God's distributive justice where all were meant to have enough, and in whose world there is enough for all when it is shared. 

The rich young man in Mark 10 wanted to know the secret of getting in on eternal life, and when Jesus told him it was as simple as sharing what he had and trusting he'd have enough, he "went away sad." Gospel life is its own reward; opting for any other way is its own punishment. We were made for each other. Gospel life is living in the awareness that the world belongs to God, and every person is made in God's image.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
God is love is love is love is love. That is the good news, no matter what the gospel may seem to say to the contrary!