Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate. Jesus challenged us with those words and there is more in them than first meets the eye. How is God compassionate?
Jesus defines this for us: God, he says, lets his sun shine on the bad as well as the good. God’s love doesn’t discriminate, it simply embraces everything. Like the sun it doesn’t shine selectively, shedding its warmth on the vegetables because they are good and refusing its warmth to the weeds because they are bad. It just shines and everything, irrespective of its condition, receives its warmth.
That’s a stunning truth: God loves us when we are good and God loves us when we are bad. God loves the saints in heaven and God loves the devils in hell equally. They just respond differently. The father of the prodigal son and the older brother loves both, one in his weakness and the other in his bitterness, and his embrace is not contingent upon their conversion. He loves them even inside their distance from him.
And we are asked to love in the same way.
How do we do that? First of all, it poses this question: If God loves us equally when we are bad and when we are good, then why be good? This is an interesting question, though not a deep one. Love, understood properly, is never a reward for being good. Instead goodness is always a consequence of having been loved. We aren’t loved because we are good, but hopefully we become good because we experience love.
But how do we, like God, embrace indiscriminately? How do we let our love shine on the bad as well as the good, without saying that nothing matters, that it is okay to live in any way and do anything? How do we love as God loves and still hold true to who we are and what are values are?
We do so by holding our personal and moral ground in a gracious and loving way. And, for this, we have Jesus’ example. He embraced everyone, sinners and saints alike, without ever suggesting that sin and virtue aren’t important. Indeed, a truly loving embrace suggests the reverse.
Let’s take an example: Imagine that your college-age daughter comes home for a weekend, along with her boyfriend. You already know that they are living together, but the awkward question still arises: Do you challenge them to sleep in separate rooms while they are at your house? You do and your answer is clear, you tell your daughter, gently but unequivocally, that while they are under your roof and unmarried they will sleep in separate rooms. She objects: “That’s hypocritical, my values aren’t the same as yours, and I don’t believe this is wrong in any way!”
Your response is the non-discriminating, discriminating embrace of Jesus: You hug your daughter and tell her that you love her, that you know that she is already sleeping with her boyfriend, but that she may not do so in your house, under your roof. Everything inside of your body language, your embrace, and your person, will clearly tell her two things: “I love you, you’re my daughter, I will always love you no matter what. But I don’t agree with you on this matter. “
Your embrace doesn’t say, “I agree with you!”, it simply says, “I love you!” and the affirmation of your love, even as you hold your personal and moral ground will, perhaps more than anything else you can offer her, invite her to reflect upon your moral ground and why you hold certain things so deeply.
This kind of embrace which radiates a wide compassion and understanding even as it holds your moral ground is needed not just in families and friendships, but in every area of life – church, moral, ideological, and aesthetic. Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Unitarians, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Muslims, Pro-Life and Pro-Choice, liberals and conservatives, people who have different views on marriage and sexuality, people with classical tastes and people with popular tastes, all must find enough compassion and empathy to be able to embrace in a way that expresses love and understanding even as the embrace does not say that differences are of no importance.
There is a time to stand up for what we believe in, a time to be prophetic, a time to draw a line in the sand, a time to point out differences and the consequences of that, and a time to stand in strong opposition to values and forces that threaten what we hold dear. But there is also a time to embrace across differences, to recognize that we can love and respect each other even when we don’t hold the same values, when what is common to us eclipses our differences.
There is a time to be compassionate as God is compassionate, to let our sun shine indiscriminately, on both the vegetables and the weeds without denying which is which.