Love Is Not Transactional
by Louise Westfall
If you were to count the number of times the word “love” is spoken from the pulpit in this church, you would sense its importance. Actually, with Google metrics, we can do a word count, and I’ll tell you that “love” is right up there with God, Jesus, and Church. I’m kind of relieved. Love is the heart of our mission. It IS our mission. It’s the heart of our faith. Love is the essential, world-changing, life-altering, miracle reality none of us can live without.
For God’s people, love is the law. A new commandment I give you, said Jesus. Love one another. It really wasn’t a new commandment, because long millennia before, God gave it to the covenant people. Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Our late, dearly-beloved parish associate Stan Jewell liked to remind us that the best theology was one you could explain while standing on one foot. It doesn’t get any better than this. [Test it out!]
Short and sweet. But nobody claims it’s easy!
I cannot read today’s Scripture lesson while standing on one foot. It’s too long and too disturbing. It’s part of Jesus’ teachings about love and provides the reason he could get away with calling it a “new” commandment. Because here, he lays out in excruciating detail what love demands of you and me. And it is a startling new concept, not based on reciprocity, mutual affection, logic, or any human calculation. A reading from the good news according to Luke, in the sixth chapter at the 27th verse. Listen, Church, to God’s Word about making love … and if that term took your mind to sex, okay, because it includes those most intimate relationships as well. [Luke 6:27-38]
Besides being difficult to practice, this text has an additional shadow side. I’ve heard it used to exhort battered women to stay with their abuser. I’ve heard it used to preserve the status quo. I’ve heard it quoted to silence people who have been bullied and oppressed. And I think these represent distortions of this text and not what Jesus meant. They reduce relationships to transactions that abuse power and betray the justice of God’s rule Jesus came to establish.
These hard sayings about loving the haters, not seeking revenge, and blessing those who actively work against your well-being reveal instead the non-transactional nature of love. There’s simply no room in love for “what’s in it for me?” Love isn’t strategic, it doesn’t control or manipulate, and it doesn’t keep score. My clergy colleagues across the county and I are curious about changes in tax law around charitable giving. Will financial contributions to the church decline when the benefits of giving become mostly intangible?
By contrast, love is intentional action we take on behalf of another’s well-being, without calculation or conditions. Notice how Jesus’ version of the “golden rule” – part of the ethic of nearly all religions – is proactively positive. DO to others as you would have them do to you. It’s not enough to simply avoid harmful actions; Jesus calls us to active engagement for another’s good.
That makes perfect sense when we consider our spouse, our children, our friends. There’s nothing better than the warmth of affection in human relationships; from the heady rush of falling in love to deep wells of contentment filled over years and through life-changing experiences. Think of the elderly man caring exquisitely for his wife, as her world grows dimmer and dimmer through Alzheimer’s. How hard this must be! She doesn’t even remember you. Ah, but I remember her … I remember her. The joy of new birth or adoption and “making room” for little ones dependent on our care. Some are fortunate to develop trusting friendships that last a lifetime, people who don’t make your problems disappear but don’t disappear when you’re facing problems. Or, as a Facebook post I saw recently put it, “True friends are when you walk into their house and your Wi-Fi connects automatically.”
Love, sweet love. Jesus stretches the definition beyond reason to include the last and least people we’d choose to love. People outside our kinship group. People with opposing views and values. People who’s needs are so immense we back away for fear of being consumed. Love them. But how can we?
A recent article by social commentator David Brooks recites the costs of the failure to do so: a kind of hyper individualism that makes life about self-interest, self-expression, and personal freedom. Our lack of healthy connection to each other, our inability to see the full dignity of each other, and the resulting culture of fear, tribalism, and strife, he writes, is to blame, at least in part, for some grim statistics: 47,000 Americans die by their own hand annually, and 72,000 died last year from substance use disorders. What gives Brooks hope in the face of these rips and tears in the social fabric are people he calls “weavers,” ones who set about to mend and build up communities so that everyone can thrive. [Brooks, New York Times, February 20, 2019, A24]
I think that’s what Jesus meant by love. To reach beyond oneself. To understand that God created a world of deep, intrinsic connection. We’re in this together. Our mission is to take good care of each other. To do justice, and remember that does not refer to “just us” but encompasses the whole world. To be kind, even in the face of hostility and aggression. To love, when it isn’t paid back or even appreciated.
We love, not to get something, but because love changes the way the world works. Instead of shame we experience acceptance and grace; longstanding enmity and estranged relationships are reconciled beyond anything imaginable.
Fact is, I really don’t know how to do that — to love like that — were it not for one startling truth: I have been loved like that. And so have you. Loved by One who cares for us as the best parent — unconditionally, forever. Loved by One who persists in the face of rebellion, hatred, and infidelity. Loved by One who leads with mercy and understanding, not judgment and condemnation. God’s love for us is the opposite of transaction, and shows us how to love for the sheer creative power of relationship.
When we see ourselves as recipients of divine love, the connections between and among us become more obvious. We’re able to see ourselves united both in need and in ability to give. We become able to look up from the balance sheet, step away from the scales, turn off the calculator. Because suddenly (or gradually) we discover they don’t matter. It’s not exchanging love for love; it’s loving for the sake of loving. It’s not a transaction in which we receive in proportion to what we give. We learn to love because God first loved us. Love can’t be bought or sold or measured or amassed. But it does multiply. And that reality helped me make sense of the final section of this text.
These verses threatened to undo the whole premise of this sermon. When I first read them, they seemed to cancel out the previous ones and turn love once more into a transaction for the personal benefit it will confer.
Judge not, and you won’t be judged.
Forgive and you’ll be forgiven.
Give, and you’ll receive.
But the more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to the hinge of the text: God’s unconditional love for us who are at times ungrateful, unresponsive, and even hateful empowers us to love in a similar, non-transactional way. While the first part of the text was prescriptive — love like this — these verses describe what happens when we do. We learn to love, not for the reward, but for the goodness it generates. We love, not to get something, but because love changes the way the world works. Instead of shame we experience acceptance and grace; longstanding enmity and estranged relationships are reconciled beyond anything imaginable. When we give generously without fear, we discover abundance — never-ending, overflowing, infinitely more than we could ever calculate. Love begets love.
Christian author and pastor Tony Campolo told a story in one of his books that helps us understand the astonishing power of non-transactional love. He was having an early breakfast in a restaurant in Honolulu when a group of women walked in — women we call streetwalkers or prostitutes. He heard one of the women say “Tomorrow is my birthday,” and another woman jokingly respond “Nobody cares if it’s your birthday.” She retorted, “Well I care. I’m going to celebrate and wish myself a happy birthday.” They left after a while and Reverend Campolo felt moved to inquire about the women. “Do they come in here all the time?” “Yep,” responded the diner owner. “Soon as they get off their “shift,” if you know what I mean.” “Well,” Tony replied, “God just spoke to me about throwing a party for the sister who said it was her birthday.” The owner looked at him and said “You get that she’s a prostitute, right?” Tony answered, “Yes. We gotta get a cake and throw a party for this sister, because we should celebrate and alleviate some of the suffering in her life.” So that’s what they did, and the next morning very early, when she walked in, all the diner folks shouted out “Happy birthday! Surprise!” and brought in a decorated cake Tony had arranged and paid for. They sang and she blew out the candles … and then she started to weep. “No one has ever thrown a party for me. Could I … could I take the cake home with me?” They boxed it up and she walked out of the diner, and everyone was standing around kind of stunned. The owner looked at Tony and said, “Hey preacher! You got us all together. Shouldn’t we pray or something?” So they all stood in a circle and Tony invited them to express whatever they felt. Someone in that motley crew whispered “I’m thankful for a God who throws parties for prostitutes.” [quoted in Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, by Otis Moss III, pp106-107]
In the face of the most transactional of human interactions, God throws a party. At Session meeting the other night, we were discussing how Central accomplishes our mission. I think this story might offer a clue: throwing parties for prostitutes and people experiencing homelessness, lonely, forgotten ones, Type A personalities, bigots, millennials and children and …
In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter how many times we speak the word “Love.” It only matters that we show it.