God is love. Period. John made that observation in his first letter (1 John 4:8), and, ever since I learned the difference between simile and metaphor, I’ve been fascinated with that assertion. God is love. Not “God is loving.” Not “God is like a lover.” Not “God loves.” God is love. That’s who he is—not just what he does. It’s a deeper definition than action. It’s property. It’s nature. It’s part of what it means to be God. God is love.
It’s easy to understand that God loves good people—people like us, people whom we deem worthy of God’s love. Sure, of course God loves you and me. We love him back. And that’s the way love works. I love you, and you love me. It’s reciprocal. But that’s not the way God works. God doesn’t just love. God is love. It goes much deeper than that.
Jesus tries to explain it in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-48). “Think about it,” he says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Can’t you see that God loves everyone just the same?” That’s a hard premise to accept—that God loves indiscriminately. God doesn’t reserve his love, his favor, his blessing, for those who make him happy. God is love. It pours out all the time. Like the factory line in I Love Lucy, the chocolates just keep coming, whether you can keep up with them or not. So it is with God’s love. Whether you want it or deserve it or accept it or even recognize it, God’s love streams forth in an unrestrained cascade.
But love like that is a dangerous thing. Love detached from evaluation is reckless. Truly unconditional love—love that is offered without any strings attached—opens the giver up to a host of problems. If I love people who are misbehaving, will that only reinforce their bad behavior? If I love bad people as much as good people, does that cheapen my relationship with the ones who love me back? And, if I love the people who reject it, will I constantly feel the sting of that unrequited love? This is too much! No one can live like that. That’s not the way the world works. It’s not right! It’s insane! It’s inhuman!
“'You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
As children of God who recognize the limitless, unconditional, unrestrained love with which we have been loved, we are called to love just as God loves. Jesus isn’t instituting a new ethic. He’s not giving us new rules for religious society. He’s explaining that what it means to be a child of God is to love the way God does. Yes, it’s different, but it’s not new. God is love—yesterday, today, and forever. We do not love others because they deserve it. We do not love them because we want to. We love because God loves us—all of us, always and forever.