We should give as we receive…for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers.
– Seneca (Roman philosopher)
I am by no means the first to point out how Jesus’ idea of love often confronts our modern notions of it. But it bears repeating, briefly, this morning. It is not that we are trying to see love through rosy lenses, but I think it is the very nature of love to hide behind those lenses and then call for our attention. Love becomes for us the last ideological line of defense against a cold and rigid world where people’s greed, lust for power, and addiction to personal pleasure at any cost breaks down the fabric of all that we long for in this place. The issue at hand, this morning in my mind anyway, is the way that I am apt to make love out to be some sort of emotional ascendancy and fail to make sure I’m seeing it in the street-level, practical strokes that the Bible paints it with.
In one of the more well-known narratives in the Gospels a young man comes to dialogue with Jesus. The young man, it is revealed, is quite wealthy. Whether this money came from inheritance or ingenuity we are not told, the gospel writers are careful not to give us room to categorize wealth as we are apt to do. Whether you worked 90 hours per week or you were given a trust-fund account when you turned eighteen is irrelevant, the only thing that matters here is that he was wealthy.
Jesus and this young man talk back and forth about eternal life, the Law, and what is required of men by God. At some point in the conversation there is a turning point. Jesus calls to this young man in the same way that He called his own disciples. My father pointed out to me several years ago this fact that I had overlooked in my readings of the text. Could Jesus have been lining up a replacement for the betrayer? Did He have big plans for this zealous, young man? It’s hard to tell. But what is clear is that Jesus wanted to move the conversation, and the relationship deeper. So, as only Jesus could, He moved the flow of conversation from the abstract talk of commandments and eternal life to the very earthy stuff of bank accounts and Persian rugs. But He didn’t just break the kid down and say “get rid of it all, it’s God’s anyway”. No, the text is beautifully written here,
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Jesus’ motivation for telling this young man to give away everything, to completely change his life and trajectory, was based on the love Jesus had for Him. This had nothing to do with an agenda, or meeting some sort of giving milestone in His ministry. Jesus was not, by any Biblical account, a fund-raiser. He was supported by people who followed Him, but we never read about Him amassing a large sum of money to give to the “H.J.P.” (Homeless of Jerusalem Project). Other than understanding exactly how important money was in the hearts and lives of people, Jesus was unconcerned with funding His ministry and acquiring resources. He was born in a stable and would be buried in a borrowed tomb, whatever happened in between couldn’t be much worse no matter what it was.
The interesting turn here, is this: when we love someone we give to them, but when Jesus loves someone He tells them to give to others. Those two things are different. How many people would gladly receive a word like this?
“I love you Mr Davidson, now give away your house, car, truck, business, rental property, clothes, contents of your refrigerator, cash in your bank accounts to people you don’t know and may never meet…and come tell people about Jesus with me on foot.”
“I”m sorry, what did you say your name was again? You might have the wrong number.”
Perhaps the love of God is just more powerful than we understand it to be. We often see love as a point-to-point affair. We give our love to someone, they either reciprocate that love or they absorb it and move on. But the love that is displayed in this passage is different. When Jesus loved this young man He was attempting not only to “love him”, but to “love through him” to others as well. This became a two-part benefit. First, it allowed others to be benefited from the love of Jesus vicariously carried by this rich man. Second, it was the only way, it seems, that the young man himself would truly be able to gain any kind of context as to the love that he was being offered. When Jesus loves us we can enjoy it. When He loves through us we begin to appreciate just what He’s doing.
Friends, today I am confident that God loves you. He has given us too many proofs to deny that He is pouring His love into our hearts and minds. But we have a choice, and the results of that choice are profound. We will either choose to let Him not only love us but love through us, and in so doing we will understand His love in a powerful, incarnational way. Or we will be loved by Him and attempt to absorb it all ourselves, never letting it spill out onto anyone else. It is this second decision that the rich young ruler made, and the consequence is startling. Not only could he not appreciate the love that Jesus had offered him, he couldn’t stand to continue to receive it.
Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
When we try to absorb God’s love without redistributing it, without letting Him love “through us”, we become like a child who has eaten twice as much of his favorite candy as his stomach can hold. Not only does the candy not remain in his stomach, but generally the child no longer has a craving for that particular kind of candy for quite some time.
Let Him love through you today, and as you do you’ll begin to understand just how much He actually does love you.
He who cannot give anything away, cannot feel anything either.
– Friedrich Nietzsche