Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charity Never Fails

Rom. 13:8-10[1]

I think many people these days are pretty confused about love. We say “I love you,” but what we really mean is “I’m lonely and I want you to comfort me.” Or “I think you’re incredibly attractive and desirable.” Or “Will you please just do what I want?” Or “I’m really excited to have such a great looking guy/girl with me; my friends are going to think I’m really cool.” Love is about wanting, or desiring, or controlling. I think part of the reason for this is that we associate love so completely with romance. As a result, love has everything to do with feelings of infatuation or attraction or even lust. When we do that, we tend to lose sight of any aspect of love as a choice, as an act of will, as a gift you give to another person.

In the Bible we’re told that one of the two great commandments, one of the two principles that sum up what it means to try to be a person of faith and to live in a way that is responsive to God’s presence in our lives, is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Given our confusion about love, I think it’s no wonder that we’ve taken this great commandment and turned it into a mandate for self-help. Since you can’t love others if you don’t love yourself, it becomes a command to love yourself. Talk about turning things upside down!

By contrast, it would seem that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t prescribe healthy self-esteem, it assumes that we are going to love ourselves. Now, I realize that there truly are some people in this world who have a hard time loving themselves. And for them, a good lesson in self-esteem probably would help them to love others better. But the reality is that the kind of love prescribed by the command is not anywhere near that complicated. The idea is that, unless you have serious problems, you are going to do what you need to take care of yourself. You are going to eat when you’re hungry; you’re going to sleep when you’re tired. If you’re sick, you will do what it takes to get well. It’s a much more practical version of love than the one we operate with.[2]

From this perspective, loving your neighbor means, “if your neighbor is hungry, feed him.” It means “if your neighbor is thirsty, give her something to drink.” If there are people who are sick or hurting or suffering or alone in the world, visit them. It’s not rocket science! But it’s not easy. I think part of the reason love has gotten so confused for us is that we’re pretty much always thinking about ourselves. We are always in the mode of “what’s in it for me?” But that’s not the kind of love the Bible teaches us. The kind of love that Jesus modeled for us and that the Apostles taught us to practice is a kind of love that simply gives to another person—without any wish to get anything in return.

From this perspective, love is what you do when you really care enough about another human being to set your needs and wants and feelings and expectations aside—and simply give yourself to them by what you do.[3] Whether it’s feeding the hungry, or clothing the poor, or comforting the sick and dying—or just listening to your spouse enough to really hear him or her—to love another person means to give of yourself to that person without thinking about “what am I going to get out of this?” In the 16th century, the translators commissioned by King James translated “love” with the word “charity.”[4] They were following the lead of the ancient scholars who translated the Bible into Latin, who used the word caritas. While “charity” has implications that may be misleading, the basic idea is one of relating to other people with genuine, heartfelt care and compassion.

In our lesson for today, St. Paul says that loving your neighbor means that you do no harm to others (Rom. 13:10). In this he may have been echoing the famous Rabbi Hillel, who summarized the whole of torah in a kind of “negative golden rule”: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation.” The idea is that when we can look at another human being with true compassion, we’re not going to do that person harm. Rather, if it is truly compassion that we feel, we will seek their good in so far as it is possible for us to do so. As Jesus put it, we’re going to “do unto others as we would have others do unto us.”

In our society we tend to think of fulfillment as a matter of getting everything we want in life. But the truly spiritual sages throughout history have told us in many ways that the true path to fulfillment in this life is through giving yourself away in service to others.[5] It seems to me that if we find happiness elusive, perhaps one place to look is at our practice of love for others. “Loving” others as a means of getting what we want may provide short-term benefits, but in the long term it’s not going to be a prescription for happiness. I think we will only find genuine, lasting happiness in this life if we can learn to relate to others with genuine care and compassion, and really give ourselves to them. I think we can only find fulfillment in life if we can learn to practice the “charity” which never fails.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/4/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, which defines loving your neighbor as yourself in terms of showing “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness” to all, even your enemies (Heid Cat 4.107)! It means to “work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may” (4.111).

[3] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, 25: “Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do. Perfect love is action that is not wrapped up in self-regard, and it has no concern with deserving. Instead, perfect love is love poured out. It is self-offering made out of the joy of giving. It requires no prompting. It seeks no response and no reward.” Cf. also N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible 10:724

[4] Cf. Encylopedia Britannica, s. v. “Charity.”

[5] Tutu and Tutu, Made for Goodness, 34: “selflessness opens a door to real peace.” Cf. also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 31-39; Frederick Schmidt, What God Wants for your Life, 169, 179-88; and Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 98-99, 103-4.

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