The Path to Progress: Part Three

In part two of this series, I presented Jesus’ understanding of God’s love as unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, nonviolent, and everlasting as foundational to his message and ministry. I also suggested that such love is at the heart of the wisdom we need if we are to progress in ways which secure the common good for humanity and the rest of creation. In this article, I seek to deepen our understanding of this love by looking and commenting at various teachings and events from Jesus’ life.

When asked what he considered to be the greatest commandment, Jesus replied that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor (whom he defined as anyone in need) as we love ourselves. Jesus saw love as indivisible. The radical love he proposed and incarnated could not be parceled out or preferentially distributed. He said that even pagans love those who love them. His followers are called to a greater and fuller love which includes even one’s enemies. In showing such love, we are imitating the love of the One he called Abba whose compassion extends to the good and the bad, the evil and the righteous. I John reaffirms this insight with the remarkable statement that we cannot love God whom we have not seen if we do not love our sister or brother whom we can see. In fact, John says that we are liars when we profess to love God if this radical kind of love does not extend to all those around us. I would suggest that the love Jesus lived and called us to emulate warns against the limitations of all forms of preferential love (including patriotism). Love, limited to one’s own, can lead to discrimination, violence, war, injustice, oppression, and a clutching form of greed. For example, if my concern for the hungry in this world is confined only to my children, family, friends, and others like me, I am no more loving than those who know nothing about the God Jesus came to reveal.  Perhaps, through such discriminatory love, I can become even less loving than the most convinced atheist. We must always remember that the gospel is “for God so loved the WORLD.”

Our awareness and embrace of such radical love are contingent on our ability and willingness to trust God and Her love for us and all others. All of Jesus’ teachings flow from (and are dependent on) a trust in the goodness and faithfulness of Abba. Nowhere is this more beautifully expressed than in the Sermon on the Mount (especially in chapter six). Matthew 6:19-34 is a passage which should be memorized and constantly remembered by all who seek to follow Jesus. In these verses, Jesus warns against the paralysis of anxiety and how such fear can lead to clutching hands which cannot open to receive the joy and ultimate security of a loving and trustworthy God. He states that God already knows what we need, but we err when we spend our lives primarily seeking our own self-centered advantage and security. Instead, he says that we are to “seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice.” If that is the principal goal of our lives, we will receive all that is needed for us to be the children of God we were created to be and need to be. (See Matthew 6:33.)

In Matthew 7:7-12, we have a teaching which unfortunately has been taken out of context and thus frequently misunderstood. (Please take the time to read this passage.) In these verses, we are told whatever we ask for will be given to us by God. Those advocating a “prosperity gospel” quote this passage to justify their materialistic ways of life. Those seduced into this way of valuing “claim through prayer” a new car, new house, boat, diamond jewelry, million dollars, etc. and maintain that if their faith is great enough, God will give them what they ask for. Jesus, Paul, James, John, and John of Revelation warn against such a self-centered misunderstanding and misappropriation of a self-giving gospel of compassion and generosity toward others, especially those who are disadvantaged or in need of the necessities of life. 

What I suggest Jesus meant in Matthew 7 was that God gives us what we truly need to live a loving, compassionate, meaningful, and joyful life. If we “seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice (“justice” is a synonym for “righteousness” in the Jewish faith), such seeking should radically transform what we need compared to those who cannot or will not trust God with their lives and destiny. Pursuing first God’s will (as expressed throughout the Sermon on the Mount) will define what we “need” to be an authentic child of God as well as what we need to be whole/healed/saved. It’s all a matter of how deep our trust is in God and God’s will/intention for us and the world. 

To arrive at a consummation of such a divine will for the whole of creation will require faithfulness, sacrifice, compassion, patience, and hope. Jesus promised a cross for those who would follow him [“Take up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23); “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account; for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12); in John  21 Jesus tells Peter that the disciple will meet his death because of his faithfulness to his Lord; and in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus agonized over his fate because of his own faithfulness.] As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently stated and authentically fleshed out in his own life, there is a cost of discipleship of which the false gospel of prosperity knows nothing about. 

The promise of Jesus to his followers is not about “pie in the sky when we die,” much less escaping the sufferings of this world. Indeed, he clearly states that following him can bring persecution, pain, and death. What he promises is that God’s love has the last word; that lives offered in trust to his ways provide the deepest joy, fulfillment, and purpose; that, paradoxically, lives “lost” in the service of compassion and justice are “found” in ultimate and worthy ways; and that his way of self-giving love and shalom is the only hope for this world. Such wisdom will seem like foolishness and weakness to those who value status, wealth, power, and self-aggrandizement. But those who know the heart of Abba and, therefore, the goal and destiny of creation, also know that the only power capable of healing, saving, and transforming this world is unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, nonviolent, and everlasting love—and they will discover their role in the unfolding of such a glorious process. 

(In part four of this series, we will consider what I suggest is the primary challenge we face as Americans in the 21st century. In the final two parts of this series, we shall look at how the love and compassion Jesus revealed and asked of us relate to what I suggest is this challenge.)

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