When Jesus says we have to hate our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, he means that we have to live in a way that shows the world: your true family is infinitely more than members of your own clan, nation, race, sexuality, tax bracket, or religion. It’s everyone. This sounds like a warm fuzzy in the abstract, but just try living it out. The world will perceive loving this way as strange, if not totally irresponsible and disloyal. Like running back into a burning building to save a kid who’s not your own, while your own kid stands on the curb begging you not to leave him. Ouch.
Many people in the world—especially those used to the biggest slice of love’s pie—don’t even recognize radical love as love at all, but instead as a disfigurement of love’s face. Jesus’ use of the extreme word hate captures how alien God’s all-embracing agape feels to those who do not yet comprehend a love that excludes no one from the shelter of its sky.
Equality is a painful thing for those accustomed to not having to share, even when the thing we’re talking about sharing is love. Capacious canopy love is terrifying and baffling. Human nature panics. We assume there is not enough love to go around.
I once received a lovely handwritten card from a new coworker. Later, I learned that this generous person gives everyone cards, for every possible reason. When I learned this, I didn’t feel special anymore. My ego tried to stage a coup against my happiness. It lost, thankfully. The secret to happiness is realizing that, like oxygen, there’s enough to go around, and more gets made every day.
Love is the same. Love is like galaxies, not gasoline. It’s not some precious resource that’ll be sucked dry in twenty years, or an endangered species like the northern hairy-nosed wombat. Sometimes when I feel myself getting envious of a friend or a colleague, I actually repeat to myself like a mantra: Jacqueline, there is enough love to go around. Some of us need reminding.
God is basically my awesome card-giving colleague on steroids. But deep down how does that make us feel? A love that ensconces hundreds, millions, or billions often makes us feel insignificant or un-special. Exclusive love = sexy! J Capacious love = totally unsexy. L Who doesn’t long to feel chosen and special? Maybe this is why Christians are so quick to decide who’s out and who’s in, who’s “us” and who’s “them,” and why Jesus has to keep repeating like an exhausted mom: Please stop already. How many times do I have to ask you? Look closely at the word exclusive. Uh-oh. The problem with exclusive love? It excludes.
The gospel is not Wall Street. The two should never be confused. We quantify and commodify everything, but love wildly refuses to adhere to our market economics of scarcity. The more there is of it, the more it multiplies. Agape is like algae, not amethysts. Like mosquitoes, not money. Algae? Mosquitoes? See, I told you. Definitely unsexy.
God wrote the truth about love on the pages of the universe, but we keep missing the memo. Think, for example, of how the universe is constantly expanding. It balloons bigger with every passing second, which sounds terrifyingly like something that would annihilate us. Turns out, though, it’s exactly the perfect pace for everyone to thrive. The universe whispers: love like this.
Saint Augustine once wrote, “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us.” Again, preposterous. How can any one love do this for seven billion people? I can’t explain it, but I think I’ve seen it. Have you ever walked or run beside an ocean or lake as the sun rests low in the sky over the water? Next time you do, notice how the sun’s light blazes a path from the sky straight to your feet. Walk parallel to the water’s edge, and watch—the beam follows you like a spotlight. But that’s not even the best part. Though it appears that the glow glints alongside you and you only, the truth is, in that exact same moment, everyone else beside the water sees the sun gallop alongside them as if they were the only one. This is God’s agape message in a bottle, written in sunlight ink.
“The problem with humanity is that we draw the circle of our family too small,” Mother Teresa once said. To test her quote, recently in my theology class I asked my students to draw their families. Only “immediate” relatives made the Crayola cut. They drew their families almost exactly as I had when I was in kindergarten—parents, siblings, pets.
We then read Luke 14 aloud. I asked my students to turn their papers over, and draw their families as Jesus defines them.
These sketches on the pages’ flip side blew my mind—they were completely different than the initial ones. One student drew a circle and wrote the word everyone inside it. Another drew the entire earth with holding-hands stick figures encircling it. How different would the world look if we really adopted Jesus’ understanding of family?
As my husband likes to say, family is not the room you’re born into, it’s the room you walk into.
And as I like to say, every day I go out into the world as a loved person, and that changes everything. It’s true in my case that the people who most often make me feel this way are not my bio family. But Jesus gets that; it’s part of the point he’s making in Luke 14. Lovelines, not bloodlines, matter most.
This changes how we understand Communion, the Christian shared meal of the bread and the wine. To be honest, the ritual’s repetition of Jesus’ words, “My blood shed for you and for all people,” has always troubled me, for what does that really mean, to drink Jesus’ blood? We often assume it’s about sacrifice and pouring out blood to appease a vengeful God. But I have come to believe that it’s about something else.
As humans we’re obsessed with blood and bloodlines. Many of the ugliest things we’ve ever done to one another were motivated by the desire to keep our blood “pure” and “uncontaminated” by others. Consider the Nazi hatred for people of “Jewish blood,” or the widespread discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. Consider also the racist US miscegenation laws that made it illegal until 1967 for African Americans and whites to intermarry; miscegenation is a Latin word that literally means mixing of the families. Blood has long been our idol.
To counter all of this horrible hatefulness, Jesus uses the symbolic meal of Communion. Every sip of the wine contains a lesson: the same blood runs through everyone’s veins. As we drink down this truth, we share in Jesus’ bloodline and become one family: the human family. Communion shares the same doormat as Luke 14. It sits at the entrance to God’s home and reads:
WELCOME TO MY FAMILY;
YOU ARE NOW ALL RELATED.
Of course, we are a broken people who like to jigsaw apart this wholeness. This is why God insists that we share the bread and wine not once but over and over again. We need constant reminding that our sense of who is our “blood” and “flesh of our flesh” is too narrow, too vertical, too ancestry.com.
Our sense of family needs to be a circle and not a line, and that circle needs to be ever widening. For many people, their family is the first circle out from the center, and thus a necessary first step.
In order to live into the call to radical agape, Christians today need to reimagine and redefine family. Our new vision must broaden love’s bandwidth. It must push back against culture’s definition and instead align with Jesus’ own. Our new vision of family must mushroom out to include all God’s children. No asterisks, no disclaimers, no clauses, no provisions, no exceptions. Period.
Excerpt taken from Jacqueline A. Bussie’s new book: Love Without Limits: Jesus’ Radical Vision for Love with No Exceptions (Fortress Press, 2018). All rights reserved, used with permission. Not to be quoted, shared, or distributed without written permission.