(Warning: Long post, probably not worth your time. Nothing to see here folx, just keep on moving….)
I posted recently “Love Hurts” and referenced the song by that title. I then spent a good deal of that post distinguishing the sentiment of the song from the LOVE of Jesus. But I endorsed the notion that love does really hurt, though. The song got that part right, and we need not avoid suffering as we set out in ministry – that would be unloving. Yet, no doubt the “love” featured in the song is a very selfish parody of the LOVE of Christ. As for the song, it deals with a romantic kind in particular.
(That really says something. Don’t you think? Our culture has totally hijacked the word and thus the meaning of “love,” of which we only have one in the English language. And while other languages (Greek for instance) use various words for various kinds of “love,” they all are meant to depict personal care expressed for another, whereas in English the idea that it is a wonderful FEELING fraught with self interest overshadows DARKLY nearly every use of the word.)
So let’s just use that Bible term for the kind of LOVE Jesus offers. And let’s talk about it again, only now we can move on from the song and maybe dive a little deeper into the LOVE of God. The question I ask myself going into such a post is this: Can I say something new about Christian LOVE? Something that hasn’t been said a million times before?? Something more than just a “reminder” for God’s people???
(I don’t want to overly disparage the notion of “good reminders” from God’s Word, for sometimes we need them, but I find the phrase “good reminders” to be a handy cliché Christians use (and overuse) so as to be nice to a presenter while going on to ignore the presentation, and that is kind of a pet peeve, if ever I had one.)
So when I claim that God’s LOVE, the Agape he offers us and calls us to, is self-sacrificial and not so much a FEELING (though that might sometimes be involved) as it is a commitment to act selflessly in the interest of others, I don’t think I am saying anything you haven’t heard before. And when I get into the very common examination of phileo and eros by way of contrast, I figure I am really saying more of the same thing you heard last time you studied Agape. And if you really NEED the reminder, well… I don’t want to deprive you, but I am betting you probably need a wake up call instead.
The Bible is not exactly a rule book, though it has rules in it, nor is it merely a reference book, though even the Bible refers to itself frequently, and rather than ironing out all these matters, I will presume you can think your way through them sufficiently on your own, but I expect my acknowledgment of such things will help you trust that I am aware of such matters too. Hopefully you can trust that the things I actually do offer are offered with sensitivities to such complexities.
So what does the Bible actually teach about Agape? Where in the Bible and how might we engage those teachings?
At this point, for the purposes of a single blog post, I must be selective. I could right a series of very long posts on this topic and still not exhaust it. And so I will be frank at this point about the fact that I will make my offerings all oriented toward the church vis-à-vis the poor and needy. This blog is already geared that way, and so I will select a handful of biblical teachings which I believe help us with this one particular slice of the overall subject. Thus I make no claim to be exhaustive or to cover every contingency. I won’t even try to be unbiased. But with these things in mind, let us look through the Fat Beggars School of Prophets lens at Agape and the hurt we find in it.
I hope by focusing here in this way to say something new (not new as opposed to never heard before, but new as opposed to more of the same old thing).
No doubt the premier expression of the Agape of God is found in Jesus Christ – in his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Jesus is the LAST Adam (some people mistakenly call him the “second Adam,” however that is not actually what St. Paul calls him) and as the LAST Adam, he answers completely all the questions and problems posed by the FIRST. Both Adams receive dominion and rule and a wife, both Adams are naked and unashamed, both Adams encounter a Tree of Life, both Adams experience a deep sleep and divine rib surgery, both Adams inaugurate and rule over new creations. But whereas the FIRST Adam rebels against God in self interest, the LAST Adam rules in completely selfless Agape. And these Adams bookend/frame all the Adams that come in between whether Noah, Abraham, or any other Adams (men) of God.
EVERYTHING we learn from the Bible points us to Jesus, and EVERYTHING we learn from Jesus points us to his coronation and subsequent Kingdom rule. Nothing in the Bible contradicts this, and if it seems to on the surface, that is evidence we haven’t understood that bit which seems out of place.
All through every word of what I have offered so far, yet without coming out and saying it bluntly, is the idea of SUFFERING. Jesus SUFFERS his rule over creation, the FIRST Adam does not. The FIRST Adam doesn’t SUFFER one blooming thing when he sins, but he perceives that he might be SUFFERING lack of glory for his own name, for himself. It was not true, but he perceived it. Such is the devil’s lie. And in perceiving it, he grasped at deity, to contrast St. Paul’s description of Jesus, and then actually did SUFFER the very thing he should have feared. Jesus, on the other hand, emptied himself and embraced massive, soul-crushing SUFFERING, not in some masochistic fetish, but in LOVE and thus attained the name above all names AND launched a New Creation characterized by selfless Agape.
I REALLY COULD (AND PROBABLY SHOULD) STOP RIGHT THERE WITH THAT.
By saying anything more, I might (as I hope) fill out a much more meaningful, robust, and applicable lesson on Agape, one that impacts the church’s relationship with the poor, but I also, and at GREAT RISK, really might just do damage to the perfection already explored thus far. I will tread carefully as I can from here on, but I will also suggest to any readers that…
This is a good point to stop reading this. IF you are reading only half heartedly anyway, skimming and thinking this is getting needlessly long, THEN
PLEASE STOP HERE.
No real need to read any further, and the risk outweighs the benefit.
I know you said I can scream at the top of my voice, that you are not listening to me. You actually used those words with me. I am fully aware that you have dug in your heels, turned the cold shoulder to me, and you have circled the wagons in an effort to keep me out, to keep me unheard. But I keep thinking that somewhere in that life God gave you is a heart of flesh instead of stone and that sooner or later you will find enough conviction to listen, really listen, and I HOPE that when that time comes I offered to you some reasonable thoughts that will help you find your way out of the spiritual cul de sac you find yourself stuck in with your wagons all circled and everything. (Yes, you know who you are.)
God help us.
Agape is a SELFLESS LOVE. A self-sacrificial care and interest in an OTHER. A care which holds the interests of the OTHER above our own, whether personally and individually or systemically. This goes for me/you and us/them. The first and greatest command is to Agapao God, and the second is to Agapao our neighbor. It starts with God and quickly moves to OTHERS. In a nutshell, this is the battle cry of Kingdom Come: Love God and Love Others – with self-sacrificial Agape LOVE. NOTHING in God’s Word contradicts this.
And all through Scripture, the poor and needy are featured as those of highest concern for God. In fact, from very early on, God’s own chosen people fall headlong into this category in various ways depending on just which generation we are talking about, but the most premier expression of this comes fulling into focus in Egypt where God’s people are enslaved for over 400 years and killed in a systematic genocide.
It appears, when you stand back and look at the forest and not so much the trees, that God fixes his people THERE, situates them THERE, so that when he saves them the impact he makes on them and on their culture, the empowerment of the prolonged death they experienced there, will be everlasting and POWERFUL with hope like we find in no other people. And one of the key things God says to them after saving them is, “Remember when you were [needy]…” (Deut. 15:15; 24:18-20).
We might say God has a “good reminder” for us in our Bible study: Remember when you were a no-good bum. Remember when you were needy. Remember when I emptied you of all deity, meaning, and life itself, and then imprinted My image on you and tented My Spirit among you…. (or something like that).
This “good reminder” becomes a regular starting place for any study of how we deal with the poor.
I will contrast this with the experiences I have found over the last decade in the church. The work I was involved in at Vandelia Church almost 15 years ago now was groping our way deeper into the lives of the poor neighborhood around us, getting us deeper and deeper into self-sacrifice, and starting to feel rather overwhelming. Perhaps we should have studied a series of lessons on “Remember when you were bums in need” as a good starting point for how to forward. That would have been more appropriately biblical, but instead we began pointing out that we keep seeing the same faces in the ministry office every week and every month, that they never seem to get any better. that these poor people just continue to be a drain on our good graces, on our precious resources, and that we might be doing more harm than good. We started talking about helping “these people” rather than “enabling” them so that they can become “independent” and … and … and what? Go away??? All independent and everything??? Was that biblical???
Where did these notions come from?
Where in the Bible do we find God saying, “Do this right, and the poor you will no longer have with you”???
Where in the Bible do we find God saying, “Give a ‘hand up’ rather than a ‘hand out'” or “empower instead of enable” or “the goal is to make ‘these people’ become ‘independent’ and self reliant”???
Got a verse???
Even in the few places where I have found passages which COULD, given they are lifted out of the biblical context, LEND weight to some of that kind of thinking, I find that they are still overwhelmed by the more weightier passages that describe God’s Kingdom Rule with Agape LOVE that is characterized with self sacrifice. And those passages are all over the place! Not just a few obscure passages, but powerful passages everywhere I look and all pointing to Jesus on a cross!!!
As we said above, the Kingdom Come can be summed up in the commands to LOVE God and LOVE your neighbor. One of the most famous passages of Scripture comes into view on that very idea, AND takes center stage when the lawyer asks Jesus that deadly question meant to “test” him: “And who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus then sets out a story, a parable, intended to convict your heart and to indict God’s people who covertly smuggle their self interests into the Kingdom Come. And in the midst of it, we get SOME idea of what that Agape LOVE for the poor and needy looks like. I don’t claim it is a one-size-fits-all, point-for-point, how-to formula, but since it falls in the middle of a scene taking center stage right at the point where Jesus talks about the summary commands of Kingdom Come, we should consider carefully ANY variation we might want to take.
The priest and the Levite both find self interest (smoke-screened as God’s interest) more important than that of this needy brother. They are on their way to “church,” we might say. But the “good Samaritan,” as we like to call him, demonstrates Agape LOVE characteristic of God’s Kingdom Come in all the risk and expense he SUFFERS and pours out on this needy fellow man. He will not see that money again, and there is no guarantee that all this money, time, and effort will have any kind of ROI to speak of. And in so doing, so many norms, values, mores, social boundaries, and taboos are shattered and pulverized that to take Jesus seriously with this story is to be stunned. This is NOT how our world operates. We are not USED to this. And that is putting it mildly.
The question was about who the neighbor is, and the answer is revealed in the Agape described. The neighbor was the one who showed Agape, not the one who was most like us nor the ones who were too busy going to church to stop and help. And the Agape shown was, as is very characteristic all through the Bible, shown to a NEEDY person.
Remember when you were NEEDY, says God to the Hebrews. It’s a “good reminder” for us today too.
Feel me yet???
The Parable of the Wasted Cash that only “Enabled”
The other famous and most central story in the Bible we need to look at is the Prodigal Son. Again, we have a NEEDY person, only in this case it’s a NEEDY person who in no way deserves ANY kindness or Agape. This is a person who is given good, hard-earned money, and then goes off and spends it on booze!
To be completely accurate, we don’t know all the nasty stuff this son spends the money on, but booze, women, and loose livin’ appear to pretty well sum it up. The main difference here is that this boy spends his father’s money, his whole inheritance! It’s a tragic waste of a LOT more than the five dollars you had to spare in your pocket, a LOT more than the hundred dollars to keep his lights and heat on, and in fact a LOT more that paying off his gambling debt. This was a colossal wast of precious, hard-earned resources, AND, to top it off, the request the boy makes is an utter insult to his father – effectively telling the old man to go drop dead! Not one ounce of gratitude.
But this boy is the object of his father’s suffering LOVE, and in this story, the father very much represents God himself! There is no speech, not moralizing, no verifying, and no concern about where the money will be spent or whether this grace will “enable” the boy to live an unproductive lifestyle. That’s a foregone conclusion; it does!
And when the boy comes back expecting that IF his father is really, really gracious with him, he just MIGHT allow him to WORK for his charity. A rehabilitative work program???
But the father ain’t havin’ it.
The father wants, more than anyting, to LOVE this boy and to demonstrate it with a party! Meanwhile, both the boy and the father suffer so much loss just to get this LOVE shown. So much loss SUFFERED that it becomes a problem for the older brother! The one who does not waste his inheritance but rather works for it honestly every day. And in THIS narrative, he is the one out of kilter with God’s Agape!
Though to my knowledge it is no where mentioned in connection to this parable, it nevertheless would SEEM that this father heeds the good reminder God gives his people in Deuteronomy 15 and 24. I have no doubt the God who this father represents remembers when his people were slaves and needy! He remembers when his son could only crawl and not walk, and remembering this vulnerability, he has deep compassion and Agape for the NEEDY boy.
If you are going to bring God’s Agape to bear in his hurting creation, then you must accept that it involves SUFFERING. Agape hurts. And these two most famous of parables don’t hold a candle to the self sacrificial LOVE of God we see in his crucifixion, which colors EVERYTHING else we believe and say.
So, let us put away every cumbersome economic development strategy, every psycho-babble concern for “enabling,” and every avoidance of SUFFERING so that we can embrace, receive, and administer the Agape of God.