Love is ... not self-seeking

Matte Downey, Nov 6, 2018, 12:57 AM

The familiar description of love found in Paul's letter to the church in Corinth is often read at weddings. However, in 1 Corinthians 13 we find no mention of a particular "other" whom we are to love. Neither is there any reference to an exclusive relationship. Instead, Paul's description of love stands firmly in the context of community life, meant to inform a follower of Jesus concerning their posture toward others in the faith community and beyond.

Let's take a look at three of the characteristics found here (verse 5): 1) love is not self-seeking, 2) love is not easily angered or provoked, and 3) love does not keep a record of wrongs. These are all stated negatively, a technique which helps us to recognize what is missing or distorted. However, negative descriptions have their limitations, because they fail to give us a means whereby we can imagine what something actually looks like. So, let us identify the positive side of each of these statements. Love is not self-seeking; instead, it seeks the good of others. Love is not easily provoked or angered, not irritable; instead, it is patient, kind, and gracious. Love does not keep an account of wrongs, is not resentful; instead, love is merciful and forgiving, moving toward justice and not punishment or revenge.

I would like to offer three examples of this three-part description of love: a love which seeks the good of others, which is not easily angered, which is not resentful.

ONE: The first is from the New Testament and it is the well-known story of the good Samaritan, or in more colloquial terms, the good "bad guy." You can read the story in Luke 10. In response to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells a story about a man who on a journey. He is attacked by thieves who rob him, beat him, and leave him bleeding and wounded by the side of the road. A priest whose job is to be a mediator between God and humanity, comes by, but when he sees the bloody body, he distances himself and keeps on walking. A Levite whose life is given to serving God in the holy temple, happens to walks by. He also avoids the wounded man and hurries on. Then a Samaritan, a "bad guy" by Jewish standards, happens on the scene. When he sees the beaten traveler, he stops and attends to his wounds, then takes him to an inn and cares for him. When he has to leave, he pays the innkeeper to continue caring for the man, promising to pay any further expenses the next time he comes through town. In this story, the "bad guy" is the one identified as the good neighbor, much to the chagrin of Jesus's Jewish listeners.

In this story, the Samaritan does not concern himself primarily with his own agenda. He is not obsessed with avoiding situations which might render him "unclean" or infringe on his own business plans. He puts aside his own interests and makes the good of another his priority. He is not irritated or angered by the inconvenience or cost of helping the unfortunate man. Neither does he keep a record of all that he will spend in the process. There is no mention of demanding repayment. There is only a supposed "bad guy," most likely considered an enemy by the very man he is helping, showing love to someone in need.

TWO: For the second example of love in action, I turn to a set of laws in Leviticus 19. Here, we come across a paraphrase of the Decalogue found in Exodus 20, commonly known as the ten commandments. The list in Exodus is concise and to the point (mostly prohibitions) but in Leviticus 19, some additional details are included. Both passages mention honouring ones father and mother, keeping the sabbath, not making idols to worship, and restricting sexual acts which take advantage of the vulnerable. But there is a lot more detail to some of the other directives.

Where Exodus says, "Do not murder," Leviticus 19 reads: "Do not harbor a deep hatred for any of your relatives. If your neighbor is doing something wrong, correct him or else you could be held responsible for his sin. Do not seek revenge or hold a grudge against any of your people. Instead, love your neighbor as you love yourself, for I am the Eternal One" (Lev. 19:17-18). Instead of a prohibition against murder, we find a command to love your neighbor, to seek the good of your neighbor, to avoid seeking revenge or keeping account of wrongs, to let anger and hatred go. Because this is how the Eternal One has acted toward his people.

In Exodus 20 we read, "Do not steal." Leviticus 19 says: "Do not mistreat your neighbor or steal from him. Do not keep the payment of a hired hand overnight, but compensate him for work at the end of the day" (Lev. 19:13). "When you harvest the crops of your land, do not gather the grain all the way to the edges of your fields or pick up what was overlooked during the first round of harvesting. Likewise do not strip the vines bare in your vineyard or gather the fallen grapes. Leave the fallen fruit and some grapes on the vine for the poor and strangers living among you; for I am the Eternal your God" (Lev. 19:9-10). In addition to a ban on stealing, there is a call to take care of ones employees, not withholding wages, thereby creating a scenario whereby it would be difficult for them to get daily food and supplies. There is also a call to generosity, to look out for the good of others who live among them, to resist the impulse to squeeze every last bit of value from their crops. Instead, they are to leave grapes on the vine and grain in the field so that others may glean it and not go hungry. Because the Eternal One acts generously toward his people.

In Exodus we read, "Do not give false witness against your neighbor." Leviticus adds a bit of nuance to this directive: "In a court of law, do what is just, not unjust. Do not favor one side or the other, the poor or the wealthy; instead, judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go around spreading malicious lies about other people. Do not take a stand that would endanger your neighbor's life. I am the Eternal One" (Lev. 19:15). Here, the motivations behind lying and favoritism are exposed. Again, one is not to look out for ones own interests alone, but seek the good of the other, making sure that words one speaks and the stance one takes on certain issues do not put someone in harm's way. For the Eternal One speaks truth and proclaims justice for all.

The final directive in Exodus 20 is against envy: "Do not covet your neighbor's things." Leviticus turns this prohibition inside out when it says, "You must treat the outsider as one of your native-born people - as a full citizen - and you are to love him in the same way you love yourself; for remember, you were once strangers living in Egypt. I am the Eternal One, your God" (Lev. 19:33-34). Hospitality is the opposite of envy. Instead of desiring what others have, a person is to make what they have available to others, even strangers. By doing this, they seek the good of others instead of focusing solely on their own interests. Hospitality to outsiders requires gracious kindness and a refusal to keep count of every little thing that is being given, never expecting repayment. Because this is the kind of hospitality given by the Eternal One to his people.

These words in Leviticus are a precursor to Jesus's re-framing of the law in Matthew 5. Speaking to the crowds, Jesus cites the familiar directive, 'do not murder," then proceeds to tell people that this means they are not to be angry or contemptuous against someone. Then Jesus interprets "do not commit adultery" to mean removing the lust in ones own heart. In both Leviticus and in Jesus's teaching, we notice that following God is much more than abiding by a list of prohibitions. God invites people to dwell with him because he loves them. In turn, people are invited to become lovers, of God and of their neighbor. Love is an orientation of the heart which seeks the good of the other, even when it is costly.

THREE: The third example of a love which seeks the good of others, is not easily provoked to anger, and does not seek to exact punishment or revenge comes from the Young Chippewayan Band, an indigenous group of people who were displaced over a century ago. In 1876, Chief Chippewayan signed onto Treaty 6 with the Canadian government. As a result, 77 square kilometers of land near Laird, Saskatchewan were designated to the Stoney Knoll (Young Chippewayan) Band. But dwindling buffalo herds and other factors beyond their control made it impossible to sustain life there. The band was forced to leave the land in search of food. Just 21 years later, the Canadian government gave the land to the Mennonites to settle.

Now, 120 years later, the Mennonite and Lutheran communities are working with the descendants of the Young Chippewayan Band toward a land claim settlement.[1] Perhaps most importantly, the two groups (settlers and indigenous people) have developed an understanding of each others' plight. One Young Chippewayan said: "There is a trust, a mutual respect, an understanding. The understanding is: 'Look, we do have a grievance, but it is not to displace yourselves.' Why would a people that were displaced want to displace somebody else? That's not the case." The growing friendships between the Young Chippewayans and the people of Laird are characterized by hospitality, humility, listening, and seeking the good of the other. There is no anger, no quest for vengeance, only patience, gracious kindness, and a desire to move forward together in seeking to right a wrong. This, my friends, is what love looks like.


[1] A short documentary (32 minutes) tells the remarkable story of Reserve 107:

Image: The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh (1890). Taken from