For Valentine’s Day this week, the world had matters of the heart on its mind. There were heart-shaped donuts at the coffee shop. Chocolate hearts and roses were everywhere. The Humane Society was looking for sweethearts for shelter pets. Valentine’s Day is sweet and romantic and fun. And we also know that pink donuts and candy hearts have little to do with real love.
In a study of long term love, psychologist John Gottman learned that people who exhibit kindness, generosity, and emotional reciprocity tend to build better relationships than those who express contempt, criticism, or hostility. Love is not based on mere attraction. Love does not depend on ease of life or romantic circumstances or complete understanding. It is a matter of an open heart.
Our scripture readings focus on real matters of the heart. God wants us to commit, with all our hearts, to loving God and our neighbors, or to confess that we are not willing and face the consequences. There is no soft-peddling and there is no middle ground with Moses or with Jesus.
It is not surprising that most of us prefer to summarize the Sermon on the Mount with the one verse (Mt 7.12) that we call the Golden Rule. This strategy conveniently enables us to shift our attention away from challenging verses that portray the consequences of harboring our anger with a sister or brother, or the way we get into trouble by looking upon another with lust, or the way we need to pray for our enemies. This is the grown-up gospel of how faithful people live with God and each other, and it is demanding and difficult, very much like true and long-term love.
Jesus is neither a canonical minimalist nor is he a strict constructionist. Jesus actually expands on the commandments and the tradition as received by the Chosen People in the Law given by Moses. He intensifies the expectation of adherence to the Law, by placing the focus on the necessity of fidelity in relationships. With Jesus, a faithful life is all about relationship, with God and people.
That is the root of the prohibition of divorce. We hear that piece of the gospel and may be concerned or offended. Jesus’ criticism of divorce is a blunt rebuttal of male partners who choose not to live up to the commitments of relationship, in a culture in which women and dependent children were especially vulnerable. Remember, in first century Palestine, marriage was a very different institution from the partnerships and love matches of our time. Only a man could demand a divorce, and the wife and her female children would be put out of the family home. Unless she could return to the protection of a parent or brother, starvation was likely. Even in modern times, in the context of marriage as relationship, the difficult and heartbreaking outcome of divorce has often been the impoverishment of women and their children. The Episcopal Church’s treatment of divorce has evolved from punitive reaction and into a pastoral response since the mid 20th century. Human beings are fragile, relationships are very complicated, and we all need some healing. We trust in and try to demonstrate the love and mercy of God.
Thus, the call to avoid adultery is a way to preserve the commitments we have made in partnered relationships and also a commitment to honor those we meet in non-romantic contexts. We must treat and see our neighbors as if they actually are the image of God, because that is who we really are. To reduce this focus on relationships to dogmas of purity or social stability misses the point entirely. If we really choose to walk in the Way of Love, then love commands commitment, respect, and generosity.
To love one’s enemies is no easy matter and apparently is controversial. The admonition to love and pray for those who persecute and abuse us is a dominical command, meaning it comes from the lips of our Lord. In the spiritual sense, “loving” is not equivalent to “liking.” It is not mandatory to “like” someone who is abusive or hateful, and Jesus does not expect us to have them over to dinner nor even to refrain from righteous anger at bad behavior (which is very different from clinging to anger self-righteously). At the same time, praying for someone who is un-likeable is appropriate, because hateful words and actions are signs of serious internal dysfunction. Even those we may consider enemies are children of God, and our inclination to fractiousness must truly break the heart of God.
The gospel is about real love and it is challenging.
In our community and in our time, what sort of relationships is the preaching of Jesus calling us to build, with kindness and generosity? It seems to me that our Lord is speaking about the construction of a particular type of community, one organized around respectful love and not power or control. How can we follow this teaching in our current context? In what way can we apply what we have learned about diversity and welcome those who are different from us? I wonder in what ways we can nurture those in our community whose gender identity does not comply with previously assumed binaries. In what ways can we construct a community that is founded on trust, a trust that does not rely on oaths or parties but on the deep commitments God’s children make to one another? How do our relationships reflect God’s gift of grace?
There are weeks when I read the gospel and think to myself that what Jesus asks us to do is simply impossible. I hear the invitation to new life – I want to walk along that path – I want to go there in the company of other people. And then I witness someone aim their car at a homeless pedestrian crossing Second Street, leaning on the horn and screaming. Or someone vandalizes our property (again). Or I read about our divisive political environment. Some days, we have real evidence for Original Sinfulness right before our eyes. Life can be discouraging. How can we walk this way faithfully with Jesus?
Although the gospel invites us to perfection, that is not likely attainable in this life. We can only do what we can do. We can only take one step forward at a time.
An early Christian training manual called the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) offers a pastoral instruction on the choice between life and death, which Moses places before Israel and which Jesus places before his disciples. After portraying the stark differences between the way of life and the way of death, the Didache concludes that “if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able.”
We do what we are able to do. We commit to walking with Jesus, knowing that sometimes we will fail. And each time we fail, we can get up and try again. That is the life of love. That is the life of faith. Each step we take, building our sacred relationships and trying with intention to walk in love, we move closer to our goal.
Real love is not only in candy hearts and pink donuts. Real love is about the day-to-day commitment to the relationships that define us, remembering that God is God, and honoring our neighbor.
May we decide to get up again, each time we fall.
Working Preacher. Commentary on Matthew 5.21-27.
Emily E. Smith. “Masters of Love.” The Atlantic. June 12, 2014.