“Whoever is not with Me is against Me.”
“The one who is not against Us is for Us.”
Luke 11:23; Mark 9:40
In the film Fiddler on the Roof, an important scene has Tevye, a Jewish father, debating with himself about whether to bless the marriage desires of his daughter, Chava. He asks himself a question, then says, “On the other hand...” and asks himself an opposing question. He continues. “On the other hand...” and again, “On the other hand...” and right then, he pulls up short. “No! There is no other hand!” He has made his decision, and from it he will not be swayed.
What about when God says, "On the other hand...?" Rewind to a much earlier time when Moses gives this word from the Lord concerning the Ammonites and Moabites: “You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever” (Deut. 23:6). On the other hand, Jeremiah later sends this word from the Lord to the exiles in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf ” (Jer. 29:7). On the other hand, after a remnant of exiles returns to Jerusalem, the scribe Ezra remembers God’s earlier words and its back to “never seek their peace or their prosperity” (Ezra 9:12). Why the turnabout? Is it good or not to seek the peace and prosperity of those around us who hold beliefs different from our own, perhaps even abominable beliefs?
As we lean into this knot, seeking treasure there in the heart of God, what light might we find in the context of these verses? As we pick up the remnant’s story, Ezra is concerned that the people are intermarrying with their old provocateurs, the Ammonites and Moabites, and six other tribes. All around them, it seems, the people find fascinating and attractive young women and men who, I imagine, seem to be having a good time and living full lives. Or, maybe they are well-to-do which, for some, amounts to the same thing. Whatever the reason, they ignore God’s warning that these intermarriage partners “will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods” (Deut. 7:4).
Marriage, or at least the richest of life-giving marriage, entails welcoming another intimately into one's heart. In the same way that Christ’s bride takes His ways to heart, love and fascination compels us to seek and share our spouses’ ways and passions. What brings them joy? Where will their dreams take them? When are they afraid? Why do they get up in the morning? What is it about them that so draws us in? How can we draw even closer together? In our desire for commonness of heart and soul, we seek abiding peace and prosperity for our spouses’ residence in the deepest places of our hearts.
But there’s a catch. No spouse perfectly embodies God’s heart, so any spouse, Christian or not, might turn your heart from God, even if only in small and insidious ways. However, when what most draws you to your spouse is a shared passion for the greatest commandment (i.e., to love God, Matt. 22:37), at least you two seek and stumble together toward God. By contrast, when you are drawn to one whose main passion runs another way, seeking your spouse's peace and prosperity in the intimate reaches of your heart tends to leave the greatest commandment behind; you risk blindness to the beauty of God’s ways. And we wed our hearts to more than spouses.
On the other hand, the second greatest commandment points outward (i.e., love others as yourself, Matt. 22:39). It’s not a marriage. Our heart’s intimate treasure in God is the foundation of, not the residence for, our love. We are “patient and kind” with everyone. We don’t “insist on [our] own way” but rather we “bear. . .endure all things” they might throw at us (1 Cor. 13). Even now, we Christians are exiles, living in a foreign land with people who rail against God and throw cultural darts at us. Or, they cut us off in traffic. Impatience comes easily. We insist that they behave like Christians. We can’t bear the things they do. Then we seem surprised that they don’t seek our peace and prosperity.
As exiles we will find all around us people who need love—rebellious, messy, messed-up, broken people. Just like us. And it is beautiful when we love them, when we are glad for, even seek, their welfare. Jeremiah 29:7 ends with “for in [the city’s] welfare you will find your welfare.” And I wonder: Could it be that, when the exiles sought Babylonian welfare, Babylonians returned the favor? What might our “captors” do?