JOPLIN, Mo. —
“How they love one another!” people remarked of the early Christians, and it is clear that they did. It was equally clear why they made love the rule of their lives: because God so loved the world that he gave his only son to it. The only proper response to love is love.
Today, alas, it is not so obvious that Christians love one another, or that we love others not of our faith. Love is risky; accordingly, we mete out our affections, weighing the risks that our caring will be wasted and unrequited.
Anyone coming across the story of Jesus for the first time could easily make the case that he made a fool of himself for love. He was love’s victim, literally killed for caring. If he hadn’t loved so much, he wouldn’t have died. But his followers realize that love triumphs over death. Jesus proved as much.
Jesus’ gospel of love is exemplified in his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew, 5-7. Ironically, Jesus’ sermon is admired as sublime moral teaching by Christians and non-Christians the world over, but universally ignored.
As a young child I was taught to regard the sermon’s Beatitudes as only “counsels of perfection” Ñ guidelines applicable to saints but too strenuous for ordinary believers like me, who have trouble enough following the Ten Commandments. The consequence is that Jesus’ example is treated with honor and benign neglect, which prompted G.K. Chesterton to conclude that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found to be difficult and left untried. Does Jesus seriously expect us to be poor, humble and merciful, as well as pure, long-suffering and pacific Ñ or are these options, like automobile accessories, to be purchased at extra cost? Must we not only forgive our enemies, but love them as well? Must we deny not only our bodies, but our minds, expunging lust and hatred altogether from our hearts? In short, can we make love the rule of our lives?
The answer is that those who seek first the kingdom of heaven will have their fill. There is no virtue in being deprived; but, having nothing of their own, the poor look wholly to God for their fill. He alone is their reward. The same goes for all the other privations that Jesus called “blessed.” Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there is no alternative to God in desperate circumstances. Jesus’ followers are blessed in their emptiness because only God can fill it.
Admittedly, for most people most of the time, God is the object of last resort, to be consulted only in trouble. But for those Jesus mentioned in his sermon, God is their first and only resort. This is precisely what Jesus himself acknowledged when, dying on the cross, he proclaimed to his Father: “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
We are to be perfect because God is perfect. We are to forgive because God forgives. We are to love because God first loved us.
DAVID YOUNT is the author of 14 books. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.