The Debt of Love

Julian Forth

February 12, 2017
Text: Matthew 5:21-37

Prayer of the Day:O God, strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals, we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

"If you wish to maintain love, you must maintain it in the infinitude of the debt….To love is to have incurred an infinite debt." (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 186-7) This was written by Soren Kierkegaard, whom I consider one of the most profound Christian thinkers. He wrote this in his book Works of Love: a beautiful work on Christian ethics. We will keep Kierkegaard's insight in mind as we turn to our passage from Matthew.

This Gospel passage is harsh. Here Jesus teaches that if you call someone a "fool" then you are in danger of hell's fire.  If you look at a woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery.  He teaches that it is better to mutilate your body, throwing hand and eye into the fire, than burn in hell. He teaches that if you marry a divorced woman, you have committed adultery.  And if you take an oath, you are guilty of being in alliance with the devil.  This is part of Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount; the sermon when he, like Moses, speaks to his followers and teaches us how to live.

So if you thought the Law of Moses was difficult, Jesus appears to up the ante for his followers.  Rather than destroy the Law, he seems to make greater, tougher demands than the Law.  In our Gospel passage today, Jesus explicitly refers back to the Law of Moses and then pushes envelope for his disciples.  "You have heard it was said … But I say to you…"  For instance: "The Law commands you saying 'Do not murder,' but I say to you, 'Do not even be angry with your brother or sister.  Do not insult them or even call them a fool.'" Or "The Law commands you saying 'Do not commit adultery,' but I say to you 'Do not even look lustfully at a woman.'"

Hopefully for many of us, we are able to refrain from murder quite easily.  But Jesus is saying, that's not good enough; we are just as guilty if we insult our neighbor or call them a "fool."  Fool?  Admittedly, I've said much worse than "fool" in my day, especially when I'm driving or when I've been on the phone with the cable company.  Putting aside the obvious (and very notable!) sexist perspective throughout this passage, I want us to ask this question: Who could possibly fulfill these commandments

It was hard enough following Moses' law, but these are impossible.  These commandments are daunting and the consequences are severe.  This is unbearable; no, it's impossible. Undoubtedly, Jesus' listeners reacted similarly; after all, they were no saints either.  So what are we to make of this?

I want to suggest that this is one of those instances where we need to take the Bible (and Jesus) seriously, but not literally.  If we took this literally, many of us would be terrible Christians!  In fact, we'd be terrible Christians and bound for hell simply for the fact that many of us still have both of our eyes and both of our hands.  Jesus was speaking hyperbolically, not literally.  BUT he was very, very serious.  In speaking this way, I believe Jesus is trying to get our attention, to shake us up, and to bring us to a new understanding.

Jesus' words teach us that we really DO NOT know how to love each other as we ought to.  We do not understand the tremendous dignity of each person and, therefore, we do NOT understand what is rightfully owed to each person.

Jesus is saying, we owe each other more than refraining from murder, rather we must be careful about getting angry.  We owe more than refraining from adultery, rather we must not treat each other as objects. We owe each other more than swearing and vowing (which implies that we are occasionally untrustworthy), rather we owe each other integrity.  We owe them all this and much, much more!

We should rightly hear these commandments from Jesus and feel a pit in our stomachs.  We should feel our backs tense, we should feel the weight of what has been laid upon us, and the challenge these commandments seek to imply.  We might feel a little indignant because of all the good work we have done.  Or, we might begin to feel a little guilty.  And, that, in a sense, is what I think Jesus is attempting to show us.

We are always, in a sense, "guilty" before one another.  Or better, we are culpable in our relationships with each other.  We do not know how to love each other as each person deserves to be loved and so we are in debt.  We are indebted to each other and this debt is infinite. This debt, this unfulfillable debt, is nothing less than the responsibility demanded from each of us for each of one of us.

Basil of Caesarea, an early church theologian, illustrates this debt well when he writes: 

"When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor." 

Or, as some have abbreviated it: "If you have two coats and your neighbor has none, then you have stolen one."  I want to suggest that understanding our infinite debt to one another, our unshakeable responsibility for one another, is what Jesus is describing in his commandments.

BUT I ask you to consider that this culpability, this infinite debt to one another, this responsibility for each other is nothing less than the Good News.  It is the law of our New Life in Christ, it is love by another nameLove not as a sentiment or as a hope for fulfillment, but as a duty and a commandment that binds us to each other and to the world.  Love is a debt and we are always in default.  Paul, too, states this when he begs us in Romans to owe each other nothing but love or to remain in love's debt (Romans 12:8).

One might ask, how is this talk of debt different from the debt that weighs so heavily on us today?  How is this debt different from the capitalist debt that burdens us?  The debt of student loans, the debt of check-cashing loan sharks that preys on poor communities, the debt that strangles the global south and non-Western nations.  This is the debt that's traded on stock markets, subject to speculation. This is the debt that enslaves; it is colonizing debt and we know its oppression too well.

The debt, the infinite debt of Christian love, is a liberating debt.  How so?  Because it is a debt without a creditor.  There is no hierarchy, there's no advantage; each person is indebted to each and equally so.  All are indebted to all because we owe to each other nothing less than love, forgiveness, and jubilee generosity. To the extent that we will always owe this to each other, we remain in love's debt.  We are responsible, always in default, but joyfully so.

In these times, we need to recall and testify to our debt toward one another and toward the earth

Today, we are experiencing the same old white supremacy in a new mode.  The same white supremacy that landed on distant shores crushing earth and bodies beneath European boots.  The same white supremacy that cut off people from land, that marked black and brown bodies with race, and that only values life inasmuch as it was profitable. The same white supremacy that brought us through the Middle Passage to a hostile and stolen land. This same power has and continues to wage the one and the same war abroad and in our cities, continuing the old colonial logic.  The new nationalism we see today is nothing but the heir of colonial white supremacy.

In a letter to Angela Davis, James Baldwin said it succinctly:

"As long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness--for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps--they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of--and justify--as a racial war."

The blood of those trampled by history cry out like Abel, howling the dark night of the present, haunting us with the incessant demand for dignity.

We are indebted to the millions of victims and ghosts of Western history.  We are indebted to the thousands of migrants from Mexico who will suffer raids and racist immigration policies. We are indebted the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe while the administration renews plans to build the Dakota Access Pipeline. We are indebted to those killed in the recent raid in Yemen that killed thirty civilians including an 8-year-old girl.  We are indebted to the six men murdered in a mosque in Quebec City. White supremacy, driven by anxiety and its own fragility, continues to employ capital and the state to protect its self-assured superiority.

The weight of this debt is difficult to bear.  But, unlike colonizing debt that restricts, dominates, and binds, Christian love is a liberating debt.  It's a liberating debt because it spurs us to act.  To joyfully act, to creatively attempt to do the impossible, and even if we were to succeed, we would still be in debt.  This debt which is love is active

Later in the same work, Kierkegaard writes,

"Christianity says it is a duty to remain in the debt, which means that it is an action and not an expression about, not a reflective view of, love.  In the Christian sense, no human being has accomplished the highest in love, and even if this were so, this impossibility, there would at the very same moment still be, in the Christian sense, a new task." (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 188). 

Picture what he's suggesting: even if we reached the highest heights of love, achieving the best and most beautiful act of love, then-and-there, there would be yet ANOTHER task of love to do.  Even if we reached the highest rung on the ladder of love, there would then be a new rung for us to climb. Love is action. And, I want to suggest that in these times, our acts need to take shape of activism.

Echoing the language of debt and action, Alice Walker said "Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet."  Especially today, Christian love must take the form of activism because activism is our rent, it is our debt to those who have and continue to suffer.  Activism is engaging in a prophetic witness is material and spiritual, bodily and intellectual, communal and financial.  Activism is a prophetic witness to an alternative mode of being in the world.  And as an act of Christian love, activism is not an option, it is not an opportunity, and it is not a kindness.  Activism is a debt and it is a duty; an act of love owed to those who are most vulnerable.

It is a duty to stand in solidarity with those targeted by the powers and fighting or self-determination.
It is a duty to redistribute wealth and power to those who are dispossessed.
It is a duty to risk, to put our bodies on the line for the sake of justice.
It is a duty to resist paternalism and to listen to those who suffer.
It is a duty to owe each other love and to remain ever in this debt.

"If you wish to maintain love, you must maintain it in the infinitude of the debt….To love is to have incurred an infinite debt." (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 186-7)