Somewhere in the middle of the instructions that Jesus is giving to his disciples, he stops to summarize what he has said so far. Here it is: “Love your enemies, do good, give and lend, expecting nothing in return.” It is the last phrase—do all this, “expecting nothing in return” that is the kicker, the clarifier, the crux of the matter, the hardest part of what Jesus is saying. Do all of this, expecting nothing in return.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless them, pray for them, but don’t expect that as a result, they will see the light, appreciate your kindness, apologize for hurting you, change their ways, and invite you over for dinner. Give the shirt off your back and the last dollar in your wallet. Lend what you can lend, share what you can share. But don’t do it expecting to get back what you’ve given. Don’t expect that those who receive from you will sing your praises. Don’t even expect gratitude in return.
William Shakespeare said, “Expectation is the mother of all heartache.” Poet Sylvia Plath wrote, “If you expect nothing from anyone you will never be disappointed.” When my dad was in AA he learned and often said, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” The Buddha says, “Attachment is the mother of all suffering,” and I’m hearing that to include attachment to expectations about how things should be, or how things will go—there will be pain if things don’t turn as we expect.”
What Jesus says, and what all these others say seems like good advice. It makes sense. Yes? Maybe? Sortta? If you have no expectations about anything or anyone, then you’ll be able to just go with the flow, no matter what comes. Whatever will be will be. Que sera, sera. But it also seems to me that it is impossible not to have expectations about stuff. About yourself. About others. About situations you are invested in. And expectations can lead to disappointment, but they can also be the mother of all kinds of goodness. Educational psychologists have a lot to say about the goodness that expectations can produce. If a teacher expects that a student can succeed in learning something, this will have a positive impact on the energy the teacher invests in the student, and on what the student is able to learn. Expectations of ourselves and others can have good, healthy, motivating impacts.
We’re hard-wired to have expectations. Which means we will sometimes be disappointed and feel resentment and experience suffering. And out of all this, we can learn that we aren’t in control of all the outcomes or of other people, and that it is good to hold our expectations lightly and adjust them to be more realistic as we go along. And we can learn to resist judging and chastising ourselves and others when what we expected, doesn’t come to be. We can learn to hang in there with ourselves and others and our projects.
Now, back to Jesus who says, “Love your enemies, do good, give and lend without expecting anything in return.” As I was noodling about the whole business of expectations, I realized that Jesus isn’t saying have no expectations. He’s saying, “have this expectation: to receive nothing in return for your active, specific, tangible, risking love.” And I think Jesus is talking to us about our motivations to love. Don’t love to get love back. Don’t do good to have good done to you. Don’t give, as you are able, only to those who you are certain can pay you back. Jesus is talking about giving without any expectation of a reciprocal return. Without a sense that now the other owes back what you gave.
In the first century Jesus is speaking into a culture where this sense of reciprocal return is the great driving force in social relationships. The “Golden Rule”—”do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was a fairly widespread idea back then. Philosophers taught it. Ethicists said it. Other religious traditions were committed to it. But they also taught that there are limits. By all means, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but if they don’t return your favors, repay their loans, etc., you are no longer obliged to keeping “doing unto them as you would have them do unto you” because they haven’t done it back. They broke the rule. If you give once to someone who doesn’t pay you back, you walk away as a good and honorable person. Give again and you are a damn fool. And it isn’t just a first century thing to think in terms of reciprocal social relations. It is a part of our culture, which means it is also a part of us. We keep tabs, track our little balance sheets of what we’ve done, what we’ve given, what we’re owed, sometimes consciously, but often it is not conscious at all. It is there, hidden in us. And Jesus keeps pushing up against this part of us that is keeping tabs.
Jesus’ version of the “Golden Rule” is “give unto others more goodness, more grace, more mercy than you expect them to give unto you.” Even though it is a huge stretch, even though others might take advantage of you, even though people might think you’re nuts, do it anyway. Do it first. Keep on loving your enemy even though they don’t change. Keep on returning love for hate, good for evil. Keep on praying for the well-being of those who harm you. Keep on leaning into the divine energy and release of forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t open any loopholes. Doesn’t say, “if you feel like it, do all this stuff. If you wake up on the right side of the bed, be generous, and kind, and merciful, and forgiving. If people respond in the ways you think they should, keep being gracious.” Jesus says, “Do love only. Do love without conditions.” Even though it is hard. Even though you feel resentful sometimes.
Even though it makes your life messy and messes with your expectations about what is right and fair. Do it anyway. Do it first, even though others don’t reciprocate.
This way of living and loving is motivated, it is evoked by the grace, mercy, and generosity of God which is extended to all without conditions. God gives and gives, gift upon gift upon gift, without expecting anything in return. Which isn’t to say that God doesn’t desire that we awaken to God, and to the reality that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. God desires our awakening with her whole heart. But God’s generosity, God’s costly self-giving is not predicated on our positive response. God isn’t motivated by the expectation that we will be grateful, or gracious, or loving in response. God is love. God is generous. God loves first. God loves always, and keeps on loving, keeps on giving without conditions.
Our awakening to the immense, endless love of God is its own reward, here and now. That’s Jesus says, and that’s what Jesus’ life shows us. The reward is the freedom and peace of living grounded in God’s love. It is the sweet release of trusting God with our lives, and letting go of our fears, and receiving the courage to live with hearts and hands and minds more open, more generous, more grateful, more gracious. Not because we expect others to give back to us what we have given. But because we have been given the Spirit of the One who loves first, and loves always, and loves forever, without conditions. In excess of our greatest expectations. So that we can live from that love expecting nothing in return, except more of the divine love that is packed into the universe, filling it to the brim, and spilling over into and out of our own hearts.