“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. Mark 12:32-34
There is a moment universally experienced by travelers to a foreign country when, after having exchanged familiar currency into the local denominations, a first purchase is attempted. Did I hear that right, $300 for a bottle of water? Or was it $3,000? And what exactly does that look like? The multicolored bills splaying from the wallet are handed over with the care one generally reserves for Monopoly-money. “There goes a pretty orange one. Oh, I quite liked the portrait on that other.”
Meaningless. The bills will only later take on significance after repeated purchases. The large silver coin stamped with the national seal can be exchanged for a cup of tea; The orange paper bill emblazoned with a mustached-man can buy a basket of groceries. Meaning is found in what the currency can do.
Or think of it this way: after 15 minutes of circling the same congested city block, you spot an opening and with a flash of speed, elegantly maneuver into place beside the menacing red pulse of a parking meter. It will need to be fed. And it is at this point you realize you are completely without change. You dig through the all the usual hiding places, shoving hands down folds of dusty upholstery, and still nothing. You exit the car, hoping the machine might take a bank card, but no such luck. In frustration, about to leave and chance a parking ticket, a stranger passes on the sidewalk and seeing your distress, gives you a handful of coins. The emotion comes fast: shock, then happiness, followed again by shock: you’ve been given a handful of foreign coins. Meaning is found by what a currency can not do.
Money is like that; it’s always location specific. In fact, a nation’s currency, which is in no way insignificant to its overall economy, could rightly be considered one of its defining characteristics. Think Yen. Rupee. Dollar.
Love is a foreign currency, the denomination of a kingdom not of our making, a coinage impossible for us to mint, incomprehensible and incompatible for our normal systems of exchange. Sure, we occasionally rub shoulders with it, passing with polite acceptance. But if we ever truly come face to the face the genuine article, love in the rawness of its expression, it is as indecipherable as a foreign bank note and as incompatible as a handful of foreign coin. Love will never buy you a loaf of bread, but neither could you with all the wealth of the world purchase an ounce of love. These two economies do not interface. It is other, outside, beyond the systems of our world, an alien concept invading this planet and challenging its structures for control. Love is the currency of the kingdom of God.
Which is why all our human adjectives fall flat against the impenetrable distinctness of love. We would make of love a comfortable hodgepodge of good-feelings and admiration. “I love” becomes nothing more than a momentary preference, as in, “I love these drapes”, “I love this salad”, “I love you.” More questionable still is the way this preference is purchased (has been made into commodity!) by the feelings given to us by the other; we love only in relation to how the other makes us feel. Our love for the drapes is dependent upon current styles, our love for the salad upon current appetite, our love for another human upon current happiness. Love is poorly counterfeited by humans.
God loves. This is the language scripture uses to depict the eternal creator continually giving himself for the good of the other. It is the echoing theme from cover to cover, from Garden of Eden to Garden of Gethsemane to new heavens and new earth. As love is forged in the infinite freedom of God, we are therefore powerless to create, control, or limit his choice. The world is already loved. Our choice is to reflect the reality of his love, a love as bright and broad as creation itself. This love cannot be directed around sinners, cannot skirt the edges of the unchurched or narrowly focused within the confines of the safe and similar. His love is a hand-grenade; we would make it a laser. Thus is written the peculiar language of loving enemies and other non sequiturs from human culture. But it is only there, in stepping out in the faith of another kingdom, another possible economy just outside of human understanding, that we glimpse the incomparable image of divine love, of life lived without fear for the good of all.
Now, it follows that those who are initiated into the Jesus story, who have glimpsed the immense dimensions of divine love and have claimed the Christ as the mode and model of their lives should be those who best reflect this love into the world. Churches would operate as the great prisms of our age, temples of love, penetrating and filling all the dark corners of human ugliness with prismatic radiance. And while Christ followers would generally be seen as social outcasts due to their currency’s incompatibility with the global economy of power, many would be drawn to this alternative view of existence which claims a richness and plenty in place of scarcity and ugliness.
And wouldn’t that be a nice world to live in? It could happen, and it has and is happening in various embassies of that foreign kingdom. But let’s also be clear: those who hold Christ’s name do not hold a monopoly on his love. God loves. Where his love makes its presence known in this world, no matter the vehicle or voice, it is his, originating in his infinite freedom, his ongoing, eternal choice. This is love, not the saccharine veneered emotionalism of pop-culture‘s "love", but the sacrificial gift of self for the betterment of the other, the image of the divine in flesh, a systemic incarnation.