The Gangster Life

gangster“What do you get out of loving the people who love you?  Don’t extortioners (tax collectors) do the same thing?”–Matthew 5:46

Our relationships have so many conditions and unwritten clauses.  We place ‘ifs’ in front of our love.  “If you do _____ and _____, I will love you.”  What Jesus asks of his disciples goes beyond the normal definition of love.  Love, as we know it, has stipulations.  We prefer our  many quid pro quos.  We want fairness: You scratch my back and I will scratch your back; you listen to me and I will listen to you; you provide me with adequate service and I will pay you the appropriate amount; you give me a Christmas card and I will send you one back; you refill my drink and I will give you a tip; you thank me and I will thank you, you love me and, guess what, I will love you back.

We sound like we are in the mafia when we do this; like being a human being entitles each of us to mob membership.  Respect becomes a requirement in our relationships.  Like Don Corleone in the Godfather movie, we too say to others, “But you don’t ask with respect.  You don’t offer friendship.  You don’t even think to call me ‘Godfather.'”  We act like gangsters when we place conditions on love.  And when we do this, we treat people like business associates rather than personal experiences.  There are gangsters who will literally break your thumbs or bomb your house or kill you if you do not do what they want.  Likewise, there are people, some claiming to follow Jesus, who act the same way, not with the same physicality but equal violence.

When we do this, we act like love-extortioners.  I love the term ‘extortioner’ rather than tax collector.  A ‘tax collector’ (like ye olde milkman) sounds like an honorable occupation but the phrase misses Jesus’ intent.  Tax collectors were extortioners in his day.  They were like the mafia.  If you pay them the right price, they ensure your protection from the Romans.  If you do not give them what they want, then you and your family can be harmed.  This is what Jesus means by this verse!  When we love people who love us back, we act like gangsters.  Christ wants his disciples to join his gang.  He wants them, and us, to give up offering love only when it can be returned.  That is what the other gangs do.  Jesus has another way.


Weeding the Garden

rain and sun“That you may be the children of your heavenly Father because he shines his sun on those who are evil and those who are good and he sprinkles rain on those who are just and those who are unjust.”–Matthew 5:45

I treat certain people like weeds and other people like plants.  Do you know what I mean?  I nourish only the relationships I want.  I really like some people, making tremendous effort to cultivate the time I have with them while ignoring the people I do not like.  Like weeds in my yard, I choke out all the unwanted relationships.  I enjoy my friends.  I love the people I like and limit those individuals who I do not like.  This makes my little garden, called life, to be filled with plants/people who pop up both wanted and unwanted.

Apparently, God does not want me to do this.  Jesus teaches his disciples to love both friends and enemies alike; to love the people I like and the people I do not like.  To be a follower of Christ I need to stop differentiating between the two and treat them equally.  Is this right?  God wants me to love people who do not want my love?  Does God want me to share my life with people who do not care about me or I do not care about them?

God does not see other people like I see them.  Who I call ‘weeds’ are not weeds at all to God.  God sees and loves all of us even the people I do not like.  It is a funny thing about God.  The Almighty treats us all the same, which means God keeps those pesky plants/people in my garden/life just like God keeps me in their garden/life.

When I work in my vegetable garden, the weeds get some of the same water intended for the vegetables.  There is nothing I can do about it.  I cannot control the rain.  It falls on the entire garden, weeds and all.  My plants and my weeds enjoy the same nourishment.  I wish that I can block the rain from landing on the weeds.  Or I wish that I can keep the sun from shining on them!  I do not want them around.  They are a nuisance yet I am forced to live with them as if they are my own!

Since unwanted people are in my garden, I might as well sprinkle and shine on them with the love of God.  It is what Dad does.

The “L” Word


But I am saying to you to love your enemies and pray on behalf of those who persecute you.–Matthew 5:44

Here’s the scene.  You’re driving with your significant other.  Out of nowhere the conversation takes a serious turn.  You discuss your future together, not just his or her future but “our” future.  You discuss possible cities to live, apartments, dog breeds you like, and everything else besides picking out curtains.  And all of a sudden you realize that the conversation is now in the deep end of the pool.  You look at her or him and, before you can stop it, your mouth utters the words that cannot be taken back.  “I love you.”  Your heart bursts out of exposed fear and/or true sentiment.  It is awkward and frightening.  Saying I love you to someone else for the first time is like being on the highest branch of a tree: either you fall to your doom or pick some of the sweetest fruit.

It is equally a big deal when Jesus finally says it.  He actually says the “L” word, love.  If I may quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Here, for the first time in the Sermon on the Mount, we meet the word which sums up the whole of its message, the word, ‘love.'”  He has tip-toed around the concept for a good while now.  Jesus explains how he wants his followers to act toward other people, like making it right with them and not retaliating and going the extra mile.  And then he just does it!  He actually speaks the word that has been on the tip of his tongue the whole time.  He wants his disciples to L-O-V-E others, and not just the people that we like.

Can God ask us to do this?  I actually give myself to another person when I love.  I trust that person enough to invest my own life into her or his life.  Love is an act of faith.  Love is faith.  The two are synonymous in scripture.  Love is so much more than a feeling.  Love is caring for and respecting another person.  It is getting to know and working for someone other than myself.   Love is the opposite of selfishness because it is otherness.  To love another person  requires so much.  It is hard work for two people to love each other, especially for two people who like one another.  Jesus wants us to do the unthinkable, to love people we do not like: those who look, sound, eat, smell different from us; those who say mean things to us; those who think it is funny when we fail; those who tell jokes about our hair color, gender, sexual orientation, race; those who do not want to be loved and those who think they do not need to be loved; those who do unspeakable acts of violence; those who pollute the air with hatred or chemicals; those who destroy art; those who never call or write us back; those who say they want to stay on our favorite team but leave when they get another offer; those who lack tact, grace, manners; those who knock us out or knock us up or never come knocking; those who are ashamed of us; those who are our enemies, whatever that may look like.

The “L” word is out of the Lord’s mouth.  There is no way we can put it back.


“You are hearing that is was said, ‘Love your friend and hate your enemy.'”–Matthew 5:43

Me:  You seem to be using the phrase, ‘You are hearing it was said’ a lot.  What’s up with that?

Jesus: It is a teaching method I use.  (Just like you and your dialogue with me each time one of them comes up and your signs that accompany them.)  Go on.

Me: I get it.  You want us to go beyond the laws.  You want your followers to care more about people than precepts or individuals than ideology.

Jesus: That’s true.

Me: I also notice a pattern, a progression forming, if you will,  with each new law.  You aren’t going from one to the other unintentionally.

Jesus: Do I do anything unintentionally?

Me: Maybe.  But these laws seem to go from taking someone’s life to taking someone’s spouse to taking away my ability to divorce my spouse.  Then there is the taking away of my ability to make an oath and retaliate.  It is an apparent movement from myself to others.  It is much more than living within the law.  You want me to give others my life instead of taking their lives for myself.

Jesus: Of course, I do.  The laws aren’t complete.  They keep you separate from another person.  God requires more than that.

Me: It is unnatural.

Jesus:  What do you mean ‘it is unnatural’?  It is relational and it is personal.  And everything about that is natural.

Me: You don’t understand.  Being human requires self-preservation.  Right?  If I need to do it, I kill or I take another partner or I get rid of the one I have.  I need to be able to protect my honor and my possessions.  I need to place limits on how I interact with others.

Jesus: What you’re saying is exactly how you act.  You love those people you want to love and hate the people you want to hate.

Me: You want to tell me who to love now?

To Give or Not to Give

“Give to the one who asks and do not turn away from the one who wishes to borrow.”–Matthew 5:42

Living in Hamilton County, Ohio (a.k.a. ground zero of the 2012 elections), I am thankful that the campaign season is over.  I cannot handle another phony smile or phone call.  I cannot stomach one more commercial with an approved message.  I’m ready for non-approved advertisements.  The billboards and the yard signs need to go.  All politicians, please stay away for six months.  Give us a chance to feel clean again.

Can I get an ‘Amen’?

Although they are done, there is still this nagging, underlying theme from the 2012 elections that bothers me.  It is the fight over giving to the needy.  There are two sides to this battle: those who believe it is important and those who do not.  What I do not understand is how it is up for debate, especially among people of faith.  God calls us to give to those in need.  Right?  It is fairly clear in scripture.  Am I missing something?  Why is there even two sides to this fight?  I hear politicians quoting Ayn Rand and talking heads calling for ‘personal responsibility’.  I do not know if I need to laugh or cry when I hear people (who think they are quoting scripture) say, “God helps those who help themselves.”  Is this some kind of joke?  It seems that there is this push to give to those in need not what they think they need but what we think they need, which is accountability to self.

Jesus’ wants his followers to be different.  Throughout his message, he calls them/us to worry about other people.  It is this constant push to think about others as we think about God.  It is not a message of personal responsibility but interpersonal responsibility.  It is not a message of holding others accountable but being accountable for others.  Am I only supposed to give money?  What about my time and energy?  Jesus says ‘give’.  Is there a limit to what I need to do?  Jesus does not answer this.  He says ‘give’.  What about those people who take advantage of the system?  What about the loss of dignity that comes upon those who always take?

I am the one who abuses the system if I choose not to give.  Thankfully, it does not require my vote to make it happen.

Matthew 5:41

“And whoever makes you go one mile, go two with that person.”

There is a limit to everything.  There has to be.  A world without limits is chaos.  The peanut butter jar needs to hold so many ounces of peanut butter.  The movie needs to play for  so many minutes.  Everything is so much and no more.  And our ability to help another person needs to have certain limitations.  We cannot help if we are incapable of giving more than what we have.  Jesus says we are to give our jacket to the person who asks for our shirt.  But what about our pants?  We need shoes.  Are we supposed to give everything away?

Jesus never talks about the extremes but calls his followers to love to the extreme.  He wants us to love other people in a way that transcends the law.   And Jesus does not discuss percentages or limits.  He never talks about when it is OK to stop giving.  His concern is that his disciples go beyond what is expected.  He does not want us to do the bare minimum.  In Christ’s day, a soldier can force a civilian to carry his  gear for 1000 paces, or one mile.  It gives the soldier a chance to rest from the heavy burden weighing on his  shoulders by letting someone else carry it for him.  They go the one mile and stop.  Again, there has to be a limit to everything.  A cup of coffee needs to be so many ounces.   Doesn’t the amount of help you give need to be limited, especially to an individual that takes away your dignity and time?  No one has unlimited resources.  Jesus does not restraint his followers’ giving.  Instead, he challenges us to do more.  It is a call to love the person who harms us by going the extra mile for that person.

Chris Cleave in his novel, Little Bee, describes such a situation.  A Nigerian refugee, Little Bee, moves in with an English woman that she meets in her homeland.  The woman’s son, Charlie, is curious about his mother’s actions.  She explains to him how far she is willing to go,

We still haven’t done enough to save her, Charlie.  I thought we had, but we need to do more.  And we will do more, darling.  We will.  We won’t ever give up on Little Bee.  Because she is part of our family now.  And until she is happy and safe, then I don’t think we will be either.

Matthew 5:40

“And if someone sues you, wanting to take your shirt, give up your jacket as well.”

‘I’ll sue you!’ is a common phrase in our society.  We like to fight back.  There are thousands of lawsuits in our country everyday.  A neighbor hits a tree in your yard with her car, for example.  What do you do?  One, you assess the damage.  You demand that your neighbor pays for a tree expert to evaluate the tree and explain the expense needed to fix the problem.  Two, you ask for exact compensation.  If the asking price of a new tree and installation is a certain amount, you demand that amount from your neighbor.  Three, if retribution is not enough, you seek a mediator.  You go to court.  You sue and fight for that tree.  You fight for your dignity and for the mutual respect between neighbors all over the world.  You seek that which someone owes you.  Not only that, it is normal to ask for additional compensation for the emotional toll and the legal fees that make retaliation possible.   It all needs to add up.

And this is what we call ‘justice’ in our world.  It involves revenge.  It is the equaling of the scales; eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  It is making right what someone else makes wrong.  Unfortunately, it is all based on a sense of possession.  When we take a person to court, what we really are saying is, ‘This is mine,’ or ‘That is yours.’  ‘That’s my tree.’  ‘This is my car.’  ‘That’s not your shirt; it’s mine.’  ‘That’s my reputation you’re smearing!’

Isn’t it amazing how Jesus views equality different from us?  We seek exactness.  We want what belongs to us.  Jesus, on the other hand, does not seem to worry about ‘my’ things, like ‘my’ right cheek, for instance.  ‘My’ shirt is not important to him.  All of this ‘mine’ and ‘your’ stuff leads to a lot of fighting between people.  The Savior does not want the fight to happen because he cares for us.  He loves people.  Like a parent breaking up children who bicker over a toy, he calls his followers not to worry about the pay back.  What Jesus thinks is important is the person and not the possessions of the person.  Someone wants to slap you on the right cheek.  Hand over the left one.  Someone wants to take your shirt.  Leave your jacket also.  Who cares?

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