‘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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 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 and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.(Matthew 5:43-48)
I want to say a word or two about the idea of compassion today, particularly in light of the concepts of fairness and consequences, both of which I’ve talked about recently. As Christians, even as good people, without a religious preference, we do good in the world. We try to love our neighbors and treat others kindly. If we have done our job well, then we will even be open to there love in return. Gloriously, our love is often reflected back at us. Those to whom we have been kind reciprocate. Love, after all, if it is true love, is constructive – it grows and expands. I learned that early in life and have found it a most important lesson.
Love blossoms and flourishes. Love expands beyond boundaries. Love returns more to the lover than she expended.
Except when it doesn’t. Sometimes, those we love do not show us love in return, those we care for do not get better, and those we forgive do not repent. This is the way of the world. Perhaps the hurt that caused a person’s isolation, fear, anger, or craziness cannot be overcome by our love – at least not right away. Perhaps they wish to refuse love or grace or peace. Perhaps it takes time to heal. Often the consequences are too hard to overcome and love does not flourish and grow.
Few things can be more frustrating than acting in genuine care for another person only to have them continue to behave selfishly. We see it in relationships, but also in politics. A rejection of genuine compassion hurts, because genuine compassion requires suffering with someone (com- with + passio to suffer). So if you enter into their suffering and they do not enter into yours, it feels like a betrayal. I think this lies at the heart of much egotism (an unwillingness to be open to others) and tribalism (a willingness only to be open to people who have paid the price to belong to your group).
Nonetheless, Christ calls us to suffer with everyone, not just those who suffer with us. Christ calls us to compassion for all, regardless of how they respond. Our hero, after all, died on a cross out of compassion for us. His love was not repaid. Christianity does not mean embracing harm, but it does mean a radical and scary vulnerability – it means being open to others who may not be open to us, who may even take advantage of us. The way of the world suggests that they will take advantage of us.
Why do we do it?
I could say that we do it out of sheer willingness to open ourselves to the world, the joy of vulnerability. I think there is some wisdom in that; and yet it is not complete. There can be a kind of masochistic Christianity that embraces abuse and I don’t think that’s terribly healthy at all. Vulnerability for the sake of vulnerability is not enough.
We open ourselves to the world because only in this way will the world learn. Kindness for the sake of reciprocity is not enough. That is the way of the world. God asks us to be kind so that others may learn by our love. If I am patient with someone whose opinions I loath, they might not be patient with me, but maybe they will be patient with the next person they talk to. At the very least, they will have experienced patience.
So rarely in this world do we have chances to experience deep and selfless love. No wonder people have trouble imagining a loving God; they’ve had so little experience of real love. Christians attempt to share that love. We want to give them a model by which they can understand the transcendent love that we think creates, redeems, and sanctifies the universe – the grace of God.
We are kind to people
not so that they will be kind to us
but that by us they may learn kindness.
And we must never forget that this is our primary business as Christians. This is the Good News. Kindness, goodness, compassion, love – whatever you call it – works. It does not always rebound immediately but it seeps into the system. It transforms and it lasts. It results in peace and forgiveness.
And we must not forget that this is not an easy task. Jesus died for this message, and countless others have died as well. Christians will continue to die, because Christianity means demonstrating love…even unto death. That is most definitely not the way of the world.
Fear not and be not discouraged. The love you share today may not come back to you, but it will go forward, and it will change the world.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)
Post Script: In case you’ve ever wondered about the passage in the ten commandments, this is what I think it’s about:
I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6)
When we trespass, willingly or unwillingly, there will be harm done, even unto our grandchildren and great grandchildren. Those are the consequences of the damage we do. [Or, if you absolutely must, you can call them the “wages of sin.”] When we love, which is always willing, the results extend to the thousandth generation. [It amazes me how often Christians preach on the first half but not the second. They go together.] This means that if we can only do one 250th as much good as harm, by God’s grace, we’ll come out ahead.