The Law of Love

Psalm 119:33–40; Romans 13:8–14, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on September 10, 2023

One night last week, as I was making dinner, my kid brought a cardboard box up from the basement. Full of baby bunnies! The bunnies were tiny. Their eyes were nearly closed. I’ve been told my eyes grew very wide as I learned that they had been staying in our house. The story unfolded: they’d been found at the park, in the gaga ball pit—a small enclosed space where kids kick a ball around. They were wilting in the 90-degree heat and clearly in danger of being trampled. In fact, two of them had already died. Mama bunny was nowhere to be seen.

As we worked through this situation as a family, the central dilemma became: what does love look like? Holding and cuddling the bunnies felt loving to us. How did it feel to them? What to make of the fact that they were so quiet and still, that they seemed frozen with fear? We were trying to protect the bunnies, but were they really safe with us? They were clearly hungry and thirsty. Would they be able to eat and drink what we had to offer? Fortunately, we were eventually able to place the bunnies in the care of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. It was hard to let go of them, and at the same time, it seemed like the most loving thing we could do.

The fact is, loving others is often complex, even when the person you’re trying to love is human. How we feel doesn’t always align with how we show up for the other person. There’s sometimes a tension or a disconnect between what we want to give to someone and what they really need. This issue of intent vs. impact comes up especially as we navigate relationships across differences of power and privilege. For example, it might feel good to be the one helping a person in need—offering some food or a few bucks. And yet loving someone also means supporting their dignity and agency and collaborating with them to address the systemic causes of their oppression. A second example: It might sound like love when white people say, “We’re all the same inside.” But the insistence on maintaining a color-blind attitude is not loving at all. It’s a micro-aggression to choose not to see race, and its impact on people’s experience of the world. Yes, race is a made-up construct, and at the same time, it shapes real dynamics of power.  

Today’s passage from Romans features words about love that are central to our roots in Judaism, to the teachings of Jesus, and to many other great spiritual traditions. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ve heard the suggestion that it might be helpful to tweak this golden rule a bit. Instead of trying to guess how our neighbor wants to be loved based on our own experience of love, we can listen to our neighbor and receive their feedback about how they want to be loved. Love does not mean erasing real differences between us and what we each need from community. And yet, at the same time, I also appreciate the original formulation, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because it lifts up the key importance of self-compassion.

Psychologist and author Kristin Neff points out that, to a greater or lesser degree, we all have an “inner critic,” a voice that shames us, belittles us, tells us that we are no good. On “The Hidden Brain” podcast, she said: 

The belief that we need to be hard on ourselves, criticize ourselves to succeed or reach [our] goals or make a change is actually the number one block to self-compassion we found in the research. People are afraid that if they’re kind to themselves, they just won’t get anything done.

However, she explains, it’s actually the other way around: 

People who are more self-compassionate take more responsibility for their mistakes, they’re more conscientious, and more likely to apologize. Ironically, even though the word self is in self-compassion, when you take that approach, it means you don’t have to be so self-focused.

Neff described a difficult time in her life when she learned to practice self-compassion. She first encountered the concept while attending a Buddhist meditation group.

It was a real lightbulb moment for me. It was like, “Wait a second, you’re allowed to be kind and supportive to yourself even if you’ve done something wrong?” I tried to turn the lens of compassion inward, and I tried it out, “So, Kristin, yes, I know you feel really horrible about leaving your husband and cheating on him and all that but everyone makes mistakes. You did your best at the time. You wanted this new experience of love that you’d never had before. And that’s so human.” So I started being warmer and more supportive and more understanding toward myself. And the crazy thing is, it didn’t make me say, “Okay, well, that’s fine, I’ll just cheat on whoever.” It’s not like it caused me to dismiss my behavior. It actually allowed me to take more responsibility for it. [1]

Our passage from chapter 13 of Romans is part of a series of ethical teachings Paul offered to guide the church in Rome. In Roman society, a person’s status and, often, their very survival, depended on a constant effort to accrue honor and avoid shame. This struggle for social position was like a debt that could never be settled. And in a more literal sense, many ordinary people in Paul’s time had lost homes and land and suffered under a heavy burden of debt or even experienced debt slavery. Especially in this context, I find Paul’s statement striking: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” There seems to be a paradox here. We owe one another nothing at all. Love is not a debt to be tracked in a ledger. Love is, by definition, freely given and received. And at the same, we owe one another everything. Love is all there is; love is life. And love is inexhaustible—the more we share, the more we have.

“For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Here, Paul is referring to the Jewish law, or Torah. The ten commandments (several of which he goes on to name) stand at the heart of the law. And yet Torah is not simply a set of rules. Torah is God’s self-revelation to the Jewish people—they are God’s people, God’s beloved ones, called to live as a community shaped by this loving relationship with the divine. Psalm 119 (of which we read a brief portion this morning) is an extended love song to the law and its divine giver. “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” “Give me life in your ways.” Paul’s positive view of the law in today’s passage stands in creative tension with his other teachings about the law in Romans. He repeatedly emphasizes that the law exists to show us our sin—our failures, our flaws, our alienation from God, neighbor, and self. He is clear that we cannot ever fully meet the demands of the law. We must rely on the grace of God, grace revealed to us through Jesus. It seems to be a both/and; the law both convicts us and frees us. It shows us our shortcomings and it calls us to practice the self-compassion that will allow us to dwell in love—love for ourselves and love for others.

I’m short on time to discuss the rest of today’s reading, except to note that Paul ends by urging the church in Rome to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” “Flesh,” first of all, is not a synonym for the body. “Flesh” refers to a world held captive by oppression, a realm in which fear and violence suppress love. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here Paul imagines that Jesus is like clothing. And that we can wear the way of the life he teaches and the world of love he seeks to co-create with us like we would wear a coat or a pair of shoes. Or maybe a nametag? The name Christ gives us, “beloved child” is deeply personal; God loves each one of us in a way that is utterly unique to who we are. And yet this name also invites us into a powerful shared identity. Embodying love is not something we have to do in an autonomous, self-sufficient, perfectionistic way. We can put on the garments of love which beautify our inevitable flaws and failures with the learning and growth that flow from self-compassion. We can put on the badge of our shared beloved-ness, the promise that we are held in mutual support and loving accountability, and the continual reminder that we belong to God and to each other. Amen.