Love Like God

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5.43-48

Why do we hear the words ‘Love your neighbour’ and fail to feel the impact and weight of what they call us to? I think there are two reasons. It’s partly because of our Christian heritage that makes us numb to the shocking reality of commands like this. It’s just all too familiar, so that it sounds self-evident (we think: of course you should love your neighbour…). But more importantly, I think we all have a tendency to bleed the the real message out of these words. 

That is exactly the problem Jesus is confronting here. The Jews had bled the force out of the command. ‘Love your neighbour’ was right there in the Torah (Leviticus 19.18), but somehow the original had been twisted and the balancing phrase, ‘and hate your enemy’, had been added. How did that happen? Why did that happen? 

Perhaps they felt that the call to radical separation and holiness, and even hostility towards surrounding nations, gave them a warrant to be hateful. But this betrays a misunderstanding of the difference between judicial hatred and personal animosity. The Israelites were called to exercise God’s justice against their enemies, but that did not give them a right to be hate-filled people. 

Then again, perhaps the reason this scripture had been twisted was more simple: this is what the human heart does to commands it can’t handle.

And so I believe that this command has to be heard today with fresh ears just as it needed to be heard when Jesus preached this sermon. We are no different from the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking. We have drained the real force out of this profound call and made it manageable. 

Although many people would automatically agree that love for one’s neighbour is common sense, self-evident, unsurprising, I think that is due to a misunderstanding of the basic terms being used here. Most people in our society agree that being loving is a good thing, the right thing. Christians don’t have a monopoly on love. So in what way is Jesus’ teaching radical and challenging? I think the answer lies in realising that the basic terms being used here can be understood in vastly different ways. What we mean by ‘neighbour’ is not what Jesus meant. What we mean by ‘love’ is not what Jesus meant. What is the difference? That is what we need to wrestle with.

The first difference we need to see is that there is natural love, and then there is love that is totally surprising, unnatural, and even miraculous.

Jesus is happy to concede that the ability to love is nothing special, in fact it’s ordinary. Tax collectors love (i.e. bad people, v.46). Gentiles love (i.e. non-believers, v.47). But the kind of love that’s normal and expected in the world is a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ love; it’s natural and unsurprising. 

Recall, though, that Jesus is commanding his people to holiness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (v.20), and he’s calling them to perfection (v.48). So the love he is speaking of must be more, it must be something higher

There is natural love, and then there is love that is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22), and is therefore something only God can produce in the heart. There is natural love that people express despite having no relationship with the Father in heaven — a kind of orphan love — and then there is the love that God’s children give and receive because they have experienced God’s Fatherhood. There is natural love that is totally unremarkable, and then there is supernatural, Spirit-empowered love that ought to cause the world to sit up and take note.

A second distinction is that natural love is bounded, while the love that Christ preaches is boundless. It is perfectly normal and natural to love those who are like you, who agree with you, and who love you. In fact, we define ‘neighbour’ to mean those people who are most like us. In that way, we basically love ourselves. Such love does not demand any cost. 

The original command in Leviticus was a call to costly love. The passage speaks of love for the poor (Leviticus 19.9-10), workers and the disabled (v.13-14), and foreigners and immigrants (v.33-34). This kind of love demands a cost, because such people are weak and dependent.

Jesus is preaching here a love that sees the same kinds of boundaries (he speaks of enemies, of the just and unjust, the good and the bad), but a love that smashes through those boundaries.

What does this mean for us today? It means that the church should never be homogeneous — all the same kinds of people — but rather massively diverse. A homogeneous church is not a miracle. When Jesus said, ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13.35), he was not talking about the kind of love you get in any country club, where all the people are very much of the same ilk. That does not cause anyone to sit up and take note. Instead, he was speaking of the extraordinary diversity even within his own small group of disciples, which included anti-Roman zealots and tax collectors, educated academics and fishermen. It is the love in the church that smashes boundaries that distinguishes it from the natural love we experience in the world.

A third distinction is that natural love is responsive, while the love that Christ preaches takes the initiative. It is normal for us to love in a responsive or reactive way. Generally speaking, our love is conditional, fearful, and dictated by feelings. When a person meets certain conditions, and we feel the right way towards them, we love them.

But the love Jesus is speaking of here is unconditional (even enemies and persecutors are to be loved), fearless, and this love dictates to your feelings. (And by the way, it’s not enough for Christian love to be thought of as cold, stoic, grim determination to do the right thing. Paul explicitly condemns that in 1 Corinthians 13.3 — ‘If I give away all I have… but have not love, I gain nothing.’ Clearly, it’s possible to do loving things without feeling genuine love, and that is not acceptable.) Christ is speaking of love that does not merely respond to the right conditions, but rather takes the initiative.

Lastly, there is love that is faithless (it does not require any belief in God), and then there is love that flows from faith in God. The natural love we see all around does not require that people believe in God at all. But Christ is calling us to a kind of love that is only possible because of our belief in God. That is true in at least three ways. (1) The love we are called to is deliberately imitating the love of God towards us. He is the one who loved us when we were enemies, and now calls us to do the same for our enemies. (2) The love we’re called to may well call us into dangerous situations, and that requires faith in God. Jesus speaks of loving and praying for enemies. This is only possible when we believe God is with us. (3) The love we’re called to has, as it’s end, the promise of reward (v.44). It is our belief that God will reward us that keeps us motivated to love.

Therefore, I believe that this kind of love, which is so different from the love we see in the world, is the greatest outward expression and proof of what we believe.