“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
I had been planning a blog post describing love as the motivation for our social action, but it wasn’t until I recently began reading Gandhi & Jesus (Rynne, 2008) that the nebulous thoughts began to take shape (all quotes are from this book). A verse on perfection (Matt. 5:48) may seem like an odd place to begin a reflection on love and social engagement, but it should make sense shortly.
Like Jesus, Gandhi was also interested in perfection. Rather than associate perfection only with religious piety or ritualistic purity, Gandhi connected it to love. He wrote, “Life to me would lose all its interest if I felt I could not attain perfect love on earth. After all, what matters is that our capacity for loving ever expands” (p. 34).
In Jesus we also see a focus on perfect love, or fully mature love. The parallel teaching with Matt. 5:48 (Sermon on the Mount) is found in Luke 6:36 (Sermon on the Plain)—“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” To be perfect like God in heaven is to be merciful like God in heaven. Both of these passages are part of larger sections on loving and caring for both friends and enemies, just as our father does to humanity by sending the sun and rain to bless everyone regardless of their “worthiness” or “uprightness” (Luke 6:27-36; Matt. 5:43-48). God’s perfect love is merciful to all.
In an innovative and insightful twist to Hindu thought, Gandhi taught that service is the path to moksha, which is liberation or freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. “From 1910 on Gandhi began to speak of seva (service) to others as the way to moksha. Not meditation, not bhakti (the devotional surrender to God), but service” (p. 30). Although this sentiment is not entirely absent from Hindu teachings, it was brought to the forefront of Gandhi’s consciousness by Tolstoy’s reflections on the way of Jesus in The Kingdom of God is within You and The Gospel in Brief. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28). This need to give of ourselves to care for others is basic to biblical ethics. For example, John declared: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17).
Loving service was central to both Gandhi and Jesus. Ellen White picks up on this same priority: “Faithful work is more acceptable to God than the most zealous and thought-to-be holiest worship. It is working together with Christ that is true worship. Prayers, exhortation, and talk are cheap fruits, which are frequently tied on; but fruits that are manifested in good works, in caring for the needy, the fatherless, and widows, are genuine fruits, and grow naturally upon a good tree” (Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 24; Welfare Ministry, p. 38; more).
These three leaders encourage me to not give up but to remain diligent in living a life of humble, merciful and loving service to others. Paul speaks to this need to remain faithful to our work, saying “never tire of doing what is good” (2 Thes. 3:13; see also 2:16-17).
Furthermore, I am also reminded to seek God’s Spirit that His love will be both my motivation and my pursuit. Paul highlights the reality that seemingly merciful acts can be done without love. “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). So we must open our hearts to God to be conduits of true love as we act in the world. With the Spirit of Jesus in my heart and mind, I can be a loving, just and peaceful person who does merciful, just, compassionate, peaceful, loving actions. The motivation, actions and results are inextricably linked.
May my social action never be about pride, power or appearances. May God make my heart pure and mature so I can be perfect in mercy even as our Father is perfect in mercy. May God who is love and light make me to be a true disciple so my life will demonstrate who God is, for as Gandhi observed, “Your whole life is more eloquent than your lips…. [L]anguage is a limitation of the truth which can only be represented by life” (p. 22). “A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon” (p. 23).
NOTE. To the lady I spoke with on the phone earlier this week: I am sorry I was cranky and short with you. To you, this reflection would either sound silly or ridiculous.