What’s Love Got to Do with It?

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. . . . ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Matthew 7:1-12

This week is just one of those weeks, one of those weeks when lots of events and celebrations pile upon each other. Tomorrow, it is Mardi Gras (i.e., Fat Tuesday . . . or Shrove Tuesday for those of Anglican origins). Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and our fourth annual Appalachian Chapel Service. Thursday is Valentine’s Day and the day that four YHC students travel to Chicago to attend a student religious life conference at the University of Chicago called “Coming Together 6.” Now, that is just my week. Others’ weeks certainly will fill and be marked by both the significant and mundane, noting both the passing of important events and the inexorable march of time. In an attempt at theological handicraft, I wonder if we might be able to sew all of these events together with the same defining thread, a tread of love.

In this week’s passage from Matthew’s gospel that Dietrich Bonhoeffer ponders, he considers that final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, that chapter that holds, among many others, these dual admonitions: (1) do not judge and (2) do to others as you would have them do to you.

In asking his disciples not to judge and not to treat others badly, Bonhoeffer does not assume that Jesus asks his disciples to be without options or that his disciples will never mistreat another person. Rather, what Jesus seems to be doing is reminding his followers that the life of faith, as we have discovered before, is about keeping life in its proper order and remembering what our different conceptual boxes hold, i.e., people belong in the subject box to be in relationship with while stuff belongs in the object box to be used and appreciated.

Recalling our reflection on the Sermon on Mount from two weeks ago, there, Jesus seems to be saying that when it comes to how we relate to material things we should never understand those things as the goal but as a way that we might connect with others. Or, to use a phrase often attributed to Will Rogers: “Never love things and use people, but use things and love people.” In that previous passage, Jesus’ reference to the manna from heaven in the Exodus story illustrates the importance of seeing heavenly food as a way to love God and not to see God as a way to love heavenly food . . . what is at issue is the proper ordering and of keeping things and people in their appropriate conceptual boxes.

This week, in this chapter, we get the other side of the coin. Rather than addressing how properly to understand our lives as they intersect with stuff, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount is an instruction on how properly to understand our lives as they intersect with people. This time, the issue of how to order our relationships is about remembering what it is that holds these relationships together.

Objects may be observed, pondered, manipulated, classified, held, and used. Objects are detached from us. Objects remain separate. One a very surface level, we come to “know” something about objects. Subjects, i.e., people, however, may be engaged, enjoyed, shared, appreciated, and cherished. Subjects are somehow different from us principally in how they are attached to us. Subjects are distinct but not separate. One a different level, we come to “know” something about subjects in a significantly deeper and dissimilar way. Said another way, we know things about objects. Subjects are known to us. The first category is fact-based. The second category is relationship-based.

Central to the writer’s point, people are not objects to be had but subjects to be known. When considering objects, Bonhoeffer understands that objects may be used to connect us with others. For example, phones connect us to each other; food connects us to the earth and the farmer and chef. It is this order of us connected to others through things that explains why we feel used when we become the thing that connects someone to something else. In that instance, we become an object. We are objectified. We are moved from a relational category to a material one.

When we are admonished not to judge, the gospel writer is intimating that judgment is problematic only on the occasion that judgment becomes the goal with the person being judged is transferred from the subject of our relating to the object of our observation and adjudication. In this relational equation, what connects us to others is our capacity to convert and use them as an object that links us to our own self-righteousness and correctness. Similarly, Jesus’ advancement of the Golden Rule is but a reminder that we do not appreciate being converted by others into objects any more than they do. So, by keeping that rule before us, we are more likely to resist the temptation to convert others into objects.

Yet, how do we relate or connect when objects are not in the social equation? What holds use directly to each other? The answer to these two questions is what this week’s passage from Matthew’s gospel is attempting to describe. Matthew is describing the bond of love.

Love—in this instance is embodied in the person of Christ—willfully becomes the means of our connection, linking person to person and securing that both retain their humanity. When judgment is offered, love serves as the mediator reminding us that the one being judged is not solely an object for us to consider but a person to whom we are connected. When we begin interactions with another, we anticipate how we might relate to them reminding ourselves that love is what connects us and not their social status or ability to aid us or the access that they have or role they fill. People are not a means to an end but the end that we seek. Love becomes the binding conduit to make that connection happen.

(Bonhoeffer draws some interesting conclusions from his idea of resisting making others our objects and our efforts at evangelism. Evangelism in his articulation is not about conversation but about care because conversion, as a goal, presents the temptation to treat the persons being pursued as an object to be acted upon rather than a subject to be treasured in and of themselves. Love demands that we love them and not love what they might become after our holy work. However, that is a topic for another day.)

So, if love is at the heart of what underlies this week’s reading, then love becomes that thread that binds each of the week’s many events together. Mardi Gras originated as a party of eating and drinking for a community because the next day that community would willfully enter into a time of fasting (or refraining from much eating and drinking) because the community wished to be in solidarity with those amongst them preparing to enter a life of faith as new members of the same religious community. Only those entering the community for the first time were asked to fast. Yet, Mardi Gras emerged as a community-wide effort to walk through a difficult time of fasting and spiritual preparation together. It was an act of cooperate love.

Ash Wednesday is that moment in the life of the church when the faithful are reminded of a need to walk away from some practices that are destructive to the life of the community and to walk toward those habits that build and bind, that correct and connect. Love becomes the motivation to leave some habits behind, and love becomes the means to press a people forward. Our Appalachian Chapel service is a celebration of the community where we are, reminding us that what we celebrate is more than just a locale but mainly the people who define this place. It is people and our love for them, their love for this place, and their love for each other that defines “Appalachia.”

Thursday is Valentine’s Day, a day on which we celebrate love, a tradition emerging from a day set aside to commemorate the life of Valentinus. Valentinus, according to legend, was an early Christian who was imprisoned and martyred because he performed weddings for lovers who were forbidden to marry. Also, on Thursday, at YHC we will celebrate those from our campus willing to travel to a conference interested in expanding dialogue and knowledge of other faith traditions and remembering that we engage with each other not as a means to another end, i.e., conversation, but that the engagement itself is the purpose.

So, what’s love got to do with it? Love seems to have everything to do with it. Love in this instance, if not never instance, is the most significant part.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

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