People who heard Jesus were amazed at the wisdom coming from his mouth. Or at least some of them were. Others took offense at his teachings because he turned power structures on their heads. People in Jesus’ time believed that wealth and position were signs of God’s favor. Showing off was elevated to an art, whether the topic was fine jewels or the length of one’s prayer tassels. Both secular and religious leaders were often in competition with each other for status.
Today we encounter those same misperceptions. Very popular Christian preachers teach that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy, and successful, and they assert that achieving these is a sure reward for one’s faith. Millions of people follow their teachings, donate generously to their “ministries”, and pray that they, too, may become God’s highly favored rich class. Our everyday language subtly but surely reinforces that view. We talk about being blessed by God only when things are going well, everyone we love is healthy, and we have all the material things we need. We believe that if we do things right, please and obey God, and act as “good Christians”, then we deserve to live well (according to a definition of “living well” that is very close to the prosperity preacher’s).
But Jesus scorned the idea that it is a sign of God’s favor to be wealthy, well-regarded, or hold positions of importance and prestige. Instead, he taught, it is a sign of God’s favor if you are known for your love of all. He plainly stated that rather than loving power, control, or money, we cannot claim to follow God unless we love PEOPLE. His focus was on the dignity and worth of each person he encountered, and especially those marginalized ones who had been denied respect and love by the self-righteous believers of his day.
We can too easily follow the path of those in Jesus’ time and declare ourselves righteous and good people, as evidenced by our many “blessings”, and yet ignore what Jesus defines as the heart of his message – love. John puts it in no uncertain terms when he states, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar.” That’s pretty strong language!
Take a minute with me and think about all the people you have brushed aside, looked past, or actively turned away in the past week or two. Perhaps you found them unattractive or not as intelligent as you. Perhaps their accent is difficult to understand. Perhaps they practice a different faith tradition or eat different foods than you do. Perhaps they are on the street begging for attention and coins.
Or, as is often the case, it might be someone in your personal circle. It might be a friend who hurt you, a family member you don’t trust, a colleague whose political beliefs clash with yours, or a peer who got the promotion you wanted. It might be someone you envy because you recognize that the person is smarter, more engaging, more attractive, or holds other qualities that you wish you had but don’t. There are an infinite number of reasons to exclude others, refuse to share resources, fail to seek understanding, withhold forgiveness, shun vulnerability, and protect ourselves within our own fortified world. Unfortunately, many people today are making full use of every one of those reasons.
Yet our command from Christ is exactly the opposite – include, share, understand, forgive, be vulnerable, and protect others. Love unreservedly. Love everyone. Love your enemy. Love those who persecute you. Love the sinner. Love the leper. Love the poor. Love the migrant. Love ALL of God’s people, and treat them as your own. This is a much scarier proposition, especially in today’s hostility-filled environment. Anyone who loves those cast aside risks being cast aside themselves. Anyone who stands up for what is right may be cut down. Anyone who speaks truth to power could end up getting crucified.
As we come to the end of this Christmas season, steeped in the wonder of the incarnation and God’s earthly presence, I pray that we may continue to give birth to the God of love in our world. Start with just one of the people you thought of earlier. Choose differently with that person. Give forgiveness, acceptance, resources, or understanding. Then, choose another one and do the same. Let’s work together in our own small ways to bring the Gospel to life. Let’s live what we just spent an entire season celebrating.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.