Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2023
27 “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; 28 bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone takes away what is yours, do not ask for it back again.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive payment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap, for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but every disciple who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
We are entering a series on Love as we begin Lent. This blog will be a series of bullet points. This passage is both inspirational and damning.
It is inspirational if you view it as a radical extravagant goal for our lives. It is damning if you view it as something that humans can accomplish in real life. “Love your enemy; turn the other cheek; if someone steals from you, make your loss a gift to them—and add to it; give to anyone who asks of you” taken individually are nearly impossible to apply sometimes. If we followed these rules for loving, we could stand on the corner in front of the church and give away money till we had no more to give. Taken literally, we would routinely risk bodily harm, exploitation, and bankruptcy. Is that God’s wish for us? When I asked our FIRL groups how they handled these expectations, they replied with “You have to be sensible” and “I look for other passages in the bible.” But both answers reflect our need to create exceptions to these directions for living. Sensible to you will be different than what is sensible to me. The bible is so full of contradictions that we can always find passages more to our liking. But that approach simply turns the bible into an extension of our own ego. How can we take this passage seriously in real life?
In real life we are left with the never-ending problem of discernment. There is a hunger to have clear directions about how to act but even a simple “Be Kind” will run into all kinds of difficulty when you start to define when and how much. Human beings have to deal with human limitations in real life. Who we ‘should be’ and who we are always includes a significant gap. Our love is always limited by our individual limitations. But just because we cannot reach a goal does not mean we should not aspire to reach it. This is a call to love. It is not a test of compliance. Christians must face the hard truth that we are never enough. We can’t love as God loves but we can push ourselves in that direction. But to ever assume we can ‘overcome our limitations is hubris. The trick is living within our creatureliness and trusting that God does not measure us as we measure ourselves. Use these words to inspire and direct you. Do not use them as measuring sticks for your acceptability. God has a long history of accepting us as our sinful selves. That is the promise that allows us to love when our efforts seem pitifully small.
When is enough enough when our attempts at loving fail?
The first problem is deciding what failure is. If you measure yourself by the behavior of the person you are loving, you are in trouble. Not once did Jesus withhold his love because he was not received. He never measured the validity of his calling by the number of people who listened to him—much less by the people who rejected and killed him. Even when that meant he was crucified, his faith claim was that his love mattered and continues to matter. It is a high calling, but, as best I can tell, none of us are Jesus.
The second problem is that this passage is used to justify staying in toxic relationships. Most of us have at least witnessed relationships that were undermining, dismissive and exploitative. Lending money that is never returned is fine as long as you can afford to lose it. When such lending exceeds your own resources, continuing to do so does harm to yourself. Giving is NOT a function of the needs of the person in front of you, it is a function of your capacity to give. The needs in front of us far exceed our ability to give. Loving doesn’t mean discounting yourself. In real life, we have to pay attention to our capacity to give. Can you find someone else who would stay longer—who could be more patient? Of course, you can. Do you see people who overextend themselves and begin to feel indignant and self-righteous? Of course you do. But the person you need to pay attention to is you. Where do you fit on that continuum? One size does not fit all. And to compare is to despair. Struggle with your own discernment.
I like to tell people that loving another person is inconvenient. And if you can’t stand to be inconvenienced, don’t try to be loving. It means putting yourself out to meet the needs of another. I am more than willing for people to be uncomfortable as they struggle with ‘how much is enough?’— but there is a line, and we find out the hard way when we cross it. A practical tip here is that our disappointment and our indignation are very valuable in relationships. They are good indicators that we are feeling deprived and/or that we have over extended. Failure to pay attention to our own limitations risks harm to ourselves and to the relationship. Whoever suggested that Christianity was escapism had no clue about the quagmire of uncertainty that living such a life requires.
Love is always a gift. It is not a transaction.
There is nothing wrong with transactions, per se, but such transactions are secular exchanges to ensure self-preservation and are not loving. My shorthand definition of love is ‘proactive cherishing.’ It is a decision, not a feeling. It is an intentional attempt to enhance the life of another. Most people have no clue that marriage is not about what they will receive, it is about what they are willing to give. Jesus is very clear that loving to get love or lending with the expectation of repayment are secular—even sinful behaviors. Sinful because they are motivated by self-interest and self-preservation without regard for the other. Jesus pointed to the expectation that the heavenly kingdom always includes regard for the other. How much and when are the hard questions of real life. But the principle that we must include the needs of others alongside our own needs is the rocky road of faith.
Love is not retaliatory. Period.
Turning the other cheek may be asking more than we can do but it is not ok to hurt another because you have been hurt. At no point did Jesus call down the Heavenly Hosts when his life was in danger. He didn’t even try to justify himself before Pilate. He simply responded to the accusations with the words: “You say that I am.” That is a very high standard. I know that people hurt people and that we have a nearly infinite capacity to justify ourselves. But hurting another because we have been hurt calls for confession. It is certainly ok to withdraw. But it is not ok to retaliate. It is a standard I try to put in place whenever I am working with angry couples. When people are willing to live within that constraint, reconciliation becomes possible. Otherwise, hurt begets hurt. And we cannot forgive another’s hurtfulness until we confess our own justifications for being hurtful. As Jesus put it at the end of this passage, remove the log from your own eye before you seek to remove the speck in the eye of another.
All Love is modeled after the one who loves us.
“…for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” We know what fails in human relationships. Power, retaliation, and entitlement fail. It may take many generations, but every empire based on those principles has ended up in the dust bin of history. We believe that Jesus shows us another way. It is dangerous. You may well be harmed. You will certainly be inconvenienced. You will certainly have to put your needs second sometimes. But that is the extravagant love that is offered to us. That is the direction of hope and reconciliation. It is the journey to Jerusalem that would transform the world.
As Paul put it in Romans 12: “…do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Love extravagantly.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.