Friday, March 4, 2011

Sacred Love

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7.6)

Love Junkies

Compassion, or actively expressed love, is a noble thing—the noblest thing, according Jesus, Who teaches us that, concomitant with wholly loving God, loving our neighbors as ourselves fulfills the Law. It’s also a sacred thing to be handled with utmost respect and care. To love unconditionally should not be misinterpreted to mean indiscriminately, without first considering whether our compassion will be welcomed and appreciated. Repeatedly, Jesus moots any question of whom we should love. The answer is always, “Everyone—including enemies—equally.” At first, the enormity of this takes us aback. But, with much prayer and persistence, love becomes our defining ideal. We feel its weight in every decision. Am I thinking love? Expressing love? Speaking love? We see the wisdom of Proverbs 10.12 borne out in matters great and small: “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” Wondrous as this is, though, we should also be mindful of downsides that come if enthusiasm for compassion dulls our sense of its sacredness. We can never love too much. But we can love too freely.

The more we find we’re governed by love, the more we’re prone to a sort of euphoric fervor. It’s “Love! Love!” all the time, everywhere we go, with everyone we meet. If they want to hear it or not, we make sure they know we love them without condition. Some of us get so caught up in loving others we go out of our way to tell them, “Hate me as much as you like, I still love you.” Others of us lose our minds to love. We slip from tolerance and compassion into indulgence and carelessness. “To prove I love you, I’ll never disagree with you or prevent you from harming yourself, another, or me.” Stances like these have a very potent—almost narcotic—effect; they trigger compassion highs that leave us feeling happy and powerful. But true compassion’s purpose focuses entirely on the recipient; benefits to the giver are afterthoughts, secondary at best.

If we love for the sensation, our motives are screwed up. We abuse love’s sacredness for pleasure, like idealistic love junkies who write poems, draw posters, and sing songs about how good love feels. Remember: while Jesus advocates ideals, He’s indubitably a Realist. There’s a real purpose in teaching us to love unconditionally—and hence we must love on purpose. That entails serious consideration of how we love. And before we do anything else with compassion, we must honor and protect its sacredness.

Say What?

I’m a child of the late 60s-early 70s who doodled bubble-lettered LOVE icons on any surface amenable to fluorescent markers. “Make Love, Not War” was our motto and every tune in the air—from “All You Need is Love” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme—seemed to trumpet love’s grooviness. So when I open The Sermon on the Mount and hear Jesus sound compassion’s drumbeat in verse after verse, it’s mother’s milk. I’m trucking through Matthew 5 and 6, higher than a kite. I turn to chapter 7, read the injunction against judging, and I say, “Right on, Jesus!” Then, verse 6 slaps me in the face: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Say what? What happened to all the love and forgive and go beyond business? Why is Jesus suddenly saying, “Don’t give,” and calling people dogs and pigs? Everything about it feels wrong—especially after we’re told not to judge others.

What brings this on? The commentaries net little help. The writers—most being stiff-collared, male defenders of the faith—pounce on the chance to talk some God-smack. Wesley’s Notes reflect the general tone: “Talk not of the deep things of God to those whom you know to be wallowing in sin, neither declare the great things God hath done for your soul to the profane, furious, persecuting wretches.” Wow. No love lost there. To be fair, Jesus makes similar statements elsewhere. In Matthew 10.14, He tells the disciples not to bother with people who won’t listen. He even practices what He preaches. In Nazareth, when His hometown rejects His teaching, He walks off and, as far as we know, never returns. (Luke 4)

But why introduce such a volatile topic in this context? Why use such corrosive imagery—ungrateful dogs and ravenous pigs? It seems (in my inexpert opinion, anyway) Jesus intentionally raises a reality check for people like me, who get a little woozy from all the heady love talk. He splashes cold water in our faces, reminding us love is precious, a rare treasure not to be handled cheaply or showered indiscriminately on those who will neither receive nor respect it. Basically, then, Wesley and his buddies are correct. But I think their skew is off. It’s less about not giving to ungrateful dogs and ravenous pigs than reminding us our compassion is too sacred and dear to squander on them. Must we love them? Absolutely. Must we make them pet projects, relentlessly striving to love the ambivalence, hatred, and violence out of them? No. Jesus says it’s a futile, filthy, and even potentially dangerous endeavor.

Compassion is Contractual

If we’re to make the most of God’s love in our lives, it’s essential we detach Christ’s principle of love from its practice. Obedience to principle is a personal decision each of us confirms individually: “I will love everyone equally, without condition.” We remove hatred and animosity from our hearts to give love full sway. We resist resentful and rancorous impulses to regard anyone as less than us, less worthy of love than us. Yet we can’t forget compassion—love’s practice—is contractual. It transpires between others and us, and therefore involves mutual consent: we agree to love; they agree to be loved. We can honor our end of the deal sincerely and diligently. Without their participation, however, our compassion has no real value.

That’s where the principle’s practical underpinnings rear up. Our love is forever sacred because it’s wholly self-contained, born of personal desire and sustained by self-determination. While our compassion is also sacred, it’s subject to dismissal, mistreatment, and dishonor by others. We must safeguard it. That’s why Jesus paints such an alarming picture of misguided compassion. Mongrels sniffing at sacred love as if it were garbage, pigs crushing priceless compassion and devouring the eager soul who offered it should repulse and terrify us. Therein lies the lesson. We can never love too much. We can love too freely.

Compassion is too sacred to be devalued by dismissal, mistreatment, or dishonor.


Sherry Peyton said...

Tim,an important reminder to us all. Just as its wrong to give lip service to "loving our enemies" that we don't actually feel, it is also wrong to spend our limited resources on those who reject us. Better to offer what we have to those who might benefit. An important thing to remember. Thanks for the tip!

Tim said...

Sherry, I think it's a tough lesson to learn because it involves a bit of trial and error. We don't know who will receive our love until it's offered. But when it's rebuffed, we needn't try to make the case for our love. People who need us to love them are being neglected while we try to force our love where it's not wanted.

Love covers all wrongs and has the power to conquer all. But if we devote our lives to love's conquests, we very well may cheat others and ourselves from its health and joys.

Jesus was a tough-minded man--a gentle shepherd with both feet on the ground!

Blessings (and much love),