What does the love of Jesus look like?

“Jesus’ love looks like welcoming the foreigner.”

“No, his love looks like obeying the law of the land.”

“Jesus’ love looks like acceptance, not condemnation.”

“Even Jesus got angry and flipped tables when people sinned.” 

We all lay claim to Jesus’ words and actions. We cherry pick and co-opt His message to fit our own agendas. There are around 30,000 denominations within the Christian faith and every one of them is hawking their own flavor of Christ. That means you and I have some real work to do when it comes to uncovering what the love of Jesus actually looks like. We need to ask some hard questions and hold seemingly contradictory passages up against each other and question why they seem to contradict, and if in fact they do. 

Was Jesus’ love inclusive or exclusive?

Inclusivity is the love buzzword of our generation. The moment anyone is excluded everyone wants to slap a 1990s WWJD bracelet on the lot of us. Are they right in calling us out in this fashion? I mean, what would Jesus do exactly. 

Rather than search out where Jesus was inclusive, because there are MANY examples to pick from, perhaps we need to find the one story where He was exclusive. It is found in Matthew 15:21-28 and told again in Mark 7:24-30. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter. Essentially, Jesus ignores her, and the disciples ask Him to send her away. He tells her that He was only sent for the lost sheep of Israel. In her desperation and need, she kneels and begs of Him, accepting the harsh classification of a dog sent her way saying, “Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus praises her faith, heals her daughter and sends her on her way. 

This story is harsh. It flies in the face of the inclusivity and even has a racial slur from the mouth of God. It contradicts the compassion He has been demonstrating to His disciples and the crowds. Is that what is happening? Or is there more to this story? It’s a scary question to ask. But skipping over it and allowing it to remain untouched leaves room for others to co-opt the love of Christ, to twist words, and to justify hatred towards other people groups. So let’s dive in, even if it leads us down a path we don’t want to go. 

The exception, not the rule

This isn’t typical Jesus behavior. Usually, we find Him criticizing others for pushing people away. The words display racism, there is no glossing over that . He calls her a dog, a common word for gentiles amongst Jews of that time, and she accepts the slur. 

Many theologians have attempted to justify Jesus’ response. Perhaps it was a lesson for the disciples, perhaps a lesson for us who are reading or perhaps His mission changed after seeing her faith. I can’t justify it. I want to hold on to the idea that it was a demonstration of racist hateful thoughts in the hearts of those around Him, and this interaction was nothing more than a lesson for those in ear shot. But I can’t prove or disprove that theory. So instead, I sit with the uneasiness of it, knowing that the words stung but also that something did shift. It was from this point on that His miracles began to reach out to the gentiles. The next time we see Jesus filled with compassio,n He is feeding the four thousand - the second miracle performed by Christ. 

If Jesus was exclusive in this story, something shifts once He and the disciples encounter this gentile’s faith. His compassion expands to include an ever-widening audience. Or does it? In Matthew 8 He’s already healed the centurion’s male servant and declared him  a man of great faith.

Perhaps the point of both of these displays is found in Matthew 8:10-12. After all, Jesus was known for repeating the same lesson in multiple ways. Perhaps the centurion and the Canaanite woman’s faith is the same story, held in contrast to the religious who’d rather toss the unkempt, unfamiliar lifestyles to the side rather than include them in God’s kingdom. 

“Taken aback, Jesus said, ‘I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions — streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then those who grew up “in the faith” but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened’”

Jesus didn’t give us cookie cutter Sunday school answers. Life is more complicated than that. The love of Jesus is beyond our comprehension. At the end of the day, it welcomes us all in, Jew, Gentile, Greek, Straight, Gay, Black, Hispanic, White, Poor, Rich and every other classification we seem in need of inventing. 

Unconditional love is difficult to wrap our heads around, but it is what Jesus gives. While walking on this earth, Jesus continually widened the circle of who He welcomed in. Even in the one instance that began as an exclusion ended with inclusion. Perhaps inclusion is the love buzzword of our day because there is truth in its message.