Back in the days when I was a strange, humorless, hyper-sensitive, psychotically shy 8 year old with no friends, my mother offered me this time-worn advice: “if you want to have a friend, you have to be a friend.” Time must have really worn that advice out because in my experience, it’s is mostly a load. I didn’t start making friends until after I aquired the basics of humor from my math teacher’s “Insult a Day” book in 5th grade. If you want a friend being amusing goes a lot further than being kind, reliable and caring. But this idea of a quid-pro-quo between what one puts out into the world and what one can expect to receive back stuck with me. Unfortunately.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
We’re all taught that love is supposed to be selfless. And hopefully as we go along we are able and willing to behave lovingly without regard for reward or benefit to ourselves. But really, it’s only human to expect that eventually, at least some of it will come back around. Preferably this side of the grave. At the very least being a good, loving person ought to win you approval from the people around you, right? And some cash would be reasonable as well. It’s a kind of unconcious expectation that most of us have, I think.
Jesus said that there’s no greater love than to give your life for another. In the context it’s spoken, it refers to a willingness to die for another person. Not only is it a huge sacrifice to make, but it’s also one which by definition confers no earthly benefit on the one who makes it. Then again, presumably once a person dies for another, they reap a heavenly reward and are just fine. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, btw.) But given the fact that I’m a mom living in Wisconsin, the odds that dying for another person will ever be something I have to deal with are pretty remote. So, nice verse and all, but clearly not for me.
However, as I round the bend towards 40 and a really stellar mid-life crisis, this verse has started to challenge me. I may not be asked to give up my physical life for another person, but what if I’m being asked to live a life of selfless love which benefits everyone else except me? Can I be cool with that?
Frankly, this idea has been making me a little bitter as of late. I am by no means perfect, but I’ve genuinely done my best to live out the tenents of love, forgiveness, patience, and the rest which are demanded by my faith. The idea of doing otherwise in order to gain some benefit has always been repugnant to me. I’d rather be good than have more money or more friends or an easier life. But really, in my heart of hearts, I figured my day was coming. And who knows – maybe it still is. But I’m not going to count on it. And like I said, the idea has been making me a wee bit pissy as of late.
But as it happens, this is Christmas season. Which means it’s time to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again. And I’m really feeling poor George Bailey this year. He got to that icy river and there was a part of me hoping that Clarence would be late. Because George is right – you do the right things, you take care of other people and for what? For nothing. What’s the point? Jump, George! Jump! But of course when George jumps, it’s to save Clarence, not do himself in. Cuz he’s a shmuck like that. Most of the rest of the movie is George being confronted with the reality of the difference his life had made. And as crabby and bitter as I’ve been lately, I can’t help but think of how the lives of people I love – and more than I few I don’t care much for – would be different if I didn’t exist. If I have nothing else going for me, I do know that I’ve made a real difference in the world. Not on a grand scale, but in quite a few individual lives. Can I really claim to hold real love for others if I’d be happy to trade the good I’ve brought them for some ease and comfort for myself?
It has been said that God is love because his love is not dependant on anything else. He’s not Santa Claus – he doesn’t love us more when we’re good and hold back when we’re bad. He doesn’t love because he gets love back. He loves because that’s what he is. That’s the image we were made in – love that gives without regard to cost or benefit. Love that just is. So if the process of redemption is the process of being restored to that image of love, then yes, we really are called to love like Jesus said – a man who gives his life for another. With no promise of or expectation for any earthly benefit. Which isn’t to say that there’s no benefit to living a life of love for the good of others. As St. Paul pointed out, God tells us not to muzzle the oxen as it threshes grain – he’s not a God who expects his soldiers to serve at their own expense. Even Jesus faced the cross “for the joy set before him”. There are real benefits promised to those who follow God. However. they might not be the benefits we’re expecting. In fact, I’m convinced that the ridiculous, unrelenting crappiness of my life for some time now has been allowed, if not actually willed into being just so I could learn these things about life and God and love. Well, maybe not, but it’s the story I tell myself. In God’s kingdom knowledge, understanding and wisdom are treasure, after all. But that’s our struggle – to live in this world according to the ways of a kingdom which is not yet ours. It’s an upside down world, indeed.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”