Excerpted with permission from "The Soul of Christianity" (HarperSanFrancisco).

Everything that came from Jesus' lips worked like a magnifying glass to focus human awareness on the two most important facts about life: God's overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them in the way water passes without obstruction through a sea anemone.

Time after time, as in his story of the shepherd who risked ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that had strayed, Jesus tried to convey God's absolute love for every single human being and for everything God has created. The hairs of each head are counted. God notices the death of each and every sparrow. And not even Solomon in all his glory was as majestically arrayed as the lilies of the field. If the infinity of God's love pierces to the core of a being, only one response is possible--unobstructed gratitude for the wonder of God's grace.

Stated slightly differently, the only way to make sense of Jesus' extraordinary admonitions as to how people should live is to see them as cut from his understanding of the God who loves human beings absolutely and unconditionally, without pausing to calculate their worth or due.

We are to give others our cloak as well as our coat if they need it. Why? Because God has given us what we need many times over. We are to go with others the second mile. Again, why? Because we know, deeply, overwhelmingly, that God has borne with us for far longer stretches. Why should we love not only our friends but also our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us? "So that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the unrighteous as well as the righteous." We must be perfect, as God is perfect.

We say Jesus' ethic is perfectionistic--a polite word for unrealistic--because it asks that we love unreservedly. But the reason we consider that unrealistic, Jesus would have answered, is because we do not allow ourselves to experience the constant, unstinted love that flows from God to us. If we did experience it, problems would still arise. To which of the innumerable needy should limited supplies of coats and cloaks be given? When we run into mean bullies, are we to lie down and let them tromp over us?

Jesus offered no rulebook to obviate hard choices. What he argued for was for the stance from which we should approach those choices. All we can say in advance as we face the demands of our extravagantly complicated world is that we should respond to our neighbors--all of them that we think might be affected by our actions--not in proportion to what we see as their due but in proportion to their need. The cost to us personally should count for nothing.

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