Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

washing-feet-ghislaine howard

The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday in Holy Week: Reconciliation

‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Corinthians 5:19, NRSV). That’s what Christianity is, according to Paul: a message of reconciliation. It starts with reconciliation between God and humans (and note the direction of that – ‘God was reconciling the world to himself’, not ‘God was reconciling himself to the world’). But it doesn’t stop there: Christians are also called to be people of reconciliation.

How does that start? It starts when someone makes the decision not to hit back, not to take revenge. As long as people continue to retaliate – ‘You bombed my village, I’ll bomb yours back’ – then reconciliation can’t happen. Reconciliation begins when someone decides to be the first one not to hit back. ‘You have wounded me deeply, but I am going to absorb that hatred and anger and reply with love and compassion’.

This is what God does for us. Throughout history we humans have rejected God’s way of compassion and love. God has sent his messengers, but we have refused to listen to them. We have preferred the way of greed and violence, selfishness and self-centredness. We have an incredible capacity for messing things up. And when God himself came among us to live as a human being and show us what he is like, we acted true to form: we rejected him and nailed him to a cross.

Every self-respecting god in the ancient world would have known how to respond to an outrage like that. Lightning! Thunderbolts! Judgement! But God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ did not. The God who came to live among us in Jesus did not retaliate. He acted like a wimp, some might say: he refused to defend himself, rebuked his followers when they took up the sword to protect him, and prayed that God would forgive those who murdered him.

This is grace: God doesn’t give us what we deserve, but what we need. God’s love for us is truly indestructible. This is the Gospel of reconciliation. And we’re invited to take God up on that offer: lay down our arms and return to him, so he can pour out his love on us and teach us how to live in love. ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:20).

And then we’re called to go out and live in reconciliation with others. As we have been loved unconditionally, we are called to extend that love to others too. As Jesus did not strike back or take revenge, we’re forbidden as his followers from indulging ourselves in vengeance. We’re called to be peacemakers, not war makers; we’re called to love our enemies, not hate them; we’re called to give them food and drink, not turn our face away from them. We’re called to put our loyalty to Jesus and his way above any loyalty to race or nation or political philosophy, and to refuse their command to us to hate and hurt and kill.

‘For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT).

Carry on.

RLT for Tuesday in Holy Week: A prayer for today

I love this Holy Week prayer from the traditional Book of Common Prayer (1662 England, 1959 Canada):

Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I note a couple of things from it that I will take into the day today:

First, the cross is about God’s tender love. Some presentations of the atonement give the impression that a vindictive God was eager to take out an enormous temper tantrum on the world, but his good and kind Son was able to restrain him by stepping in the way of the bolt of lightning. Scripture doesn’t bear this out, of course: Paul says ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The cross is about God coming among us and experiencing in his own flesh the rejection of the human race, and rejecting that rejection: in other words, we nailed him to a cross (which is the way we have so often treated his overtures of love), but he responded with love and forgiveness.

Second, we are called to follow the way of the cross, by ‘following the example of his great humility’ – or, as Paul put it,

‘You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Thought he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross’.
(Philippians 2:5-8 New Living Translation).

How do we follow his example? Let’s close with the words immediately before the passage I just quoted:

‘Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate?Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

‘Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too’. (Philippians 2:1-4 NLT).

Carry on.

Random Lent Thought for Friday April 7th: Don’t Talk So Much!

I’ve noticed that my Random Lent Thoughts have been getting longer as Lent has progressed. Maybe that’s because I’m posting highly sophisticated thoughts that can’t be summarized in a short sound byte. Or maybe it’s just that, like many people, I’ve become more verbose because of social media!

Whatever the reason, my verse from Proverbs for today gave me something to think about:

‘The prudent keep their knowledge to themselves,
but a fool’s heart blurts out folly’ (Proverbs 12:23 NIV 2011).

Now, I don’t for a moment think that the writer intended that wise people never pass on their wisdom! The whole book is a tribute to the importance of wisdom, and it contains many exhortations to the young to listen to the wise counsel of their elders.

Nonetheless, there is such a thing as too much talking, and I’m sure I crossed that particular line a long time ago. Someone once said of a very prolific writer “He never had an unpublished thought”. I think I might be guilty of never having an unspoken thought.

What’s wrong with that? Two things, I think.

First, sometimes a thought needs time to germinate. It’s just a seed; it’s not a full-grown plant yet. In the old days, that germination used to happen in secret. We would write our ideas down in journals (which were private, not online), where no one would be in any danger of thinking that they represented our mature ideas. We could mull them over, evaluate them, discard things if we wanted. Perhaps we could share our ideas with a few trusted friends, trying them out in a small inner circle, but not broadcasting them to the world at large. By the time we went public with them, they were strong, healthy plants.

Well, I think I need to do more of that quiet cogitating.

Secondly, all this verbiage can too easily become an exercise in vanity. How gratifying to my ego that the world is interested in my thoughts! I like the approval of others! Let’s think of a few more pearls of wisdom I can share!

Well, I think I’ve blurted out enough folly for one day (if you’ve seen my Facebook feed this morning you’ll know what I mean!). As they say in the world of submarines, it’s time to ‘run silent, run deep’. Now I’m going to shut up for a while, and read a good book.

As Captain Taylor (former director of the Church Army in Canada) used to say,

‘Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff
and nudge me when I’ve said enough’.

 

Random Lent Thought for Thursday April 6th: Healing Words

The world has a lot more angry people in it than I once thought; this is one of the things the Internet has taught me. “Don’t read the comments section” is a sad but true reflection on the state of dialogue and discourse in public space these days. Discussion so quickly regenerates into personal attack and insult; people are categorized and pigeonholed and dismissed without a second thought. Yes, I know this isn’t the whole truth, but it is true nonetheless, and it’s discouraging.

What can I do?

I follow the ‘One Year Bible‘ in my daily readings, and each day it includes a short selection from the Book of Proverbs. I often enjoy these short, pithy sayings and find their observations to be surprisingly relevant. Here are two verses I’ve read recently:

‘Fools show their annoyance at once,
but the prudent overlook an insult…

The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing’ (Proverbs 12:16, 18 NIV 2011).

Here are my two ‘take-homes’ from these verses.

First, I don’t have to take everything to heart. I don’t have to take offence at everything. I don’t have to notice every little slight, every little insult.

Years ago when my daughter was in college she was working on a group project with a couple of other students. One of them was rather fond of the word ‘issues’. She kept saying, “I have issues with this project” or “I have issues with this argument”. Eventually my daughter exclaimed “I have issues with all your issues!”

‘Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult’. I don’t need to be trapped in the endless cycle of insult and counter-insult. I don’t need to make an issue of everything. I can be the one who shows forbearance, the one who thinks before they speak, the one who gives the soft answer that turns away wrath (to give another example from Proverbs). No, I am not always this person, but I am going to make an extra effort to learn to do this.

Second, I should make it my goal to heal rather than to wound.

Yes, some people need wounding, some people need rebuking, some sins need pointing out and bringing into the light of day. I understand that. But I’m also doubtful of my motivation. Is it really righteousness and justice that I’m zealous for, or is it my own ego, my own wounded pride?

Words are not just words; they make things happen. That’s what’s so scary about the international political system right now. A huge amount of power has been transferred to people who are not careful with their words. That’s scary, because wars have begun over misunderstandings and insults.

There’s enough of that going on; I don’t need to add to it. All other things being equal, I want to be the bridge-builder, the healer, the one who helps bring an increase in understanding and sympathy between people. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). I think the world today has enough angry and violent people. It needs more peacemakers, more healers, more people who think before they speak, and speak gently and considerately. Lord, give me grace today to be one of those people. Amen.

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday April 5th: ‘Sins of the flesh’ and the ‘fruit of the Spirit’

woman walking on the beachNowadays when we talk about ‘sins of the flesh’ we almost always mean sexual sins. ‘Flesh’ to us means ‘skin’; hence the connection. But this is not the way the writers of the New Testament saw it.

When our English Bible translations use the word ‘flesh’ for the Greek word ‘sarx’ (especially in the letters of Paul), they don’t help the situation. Paul had a perfectly good word for ‘body’ (‘soma’), and he tends to use it in a positive sense. But the ‘sarx’ or ‘flesh’ (as it’s translated in the NRSV and the NIV 2011) mean something closer to what Francis Spufford calls our ‘human propensity to f___ things up’ (or ‘HPtFtU’ for short). Earlier versions of the NIV used the translation ‘sinful nature’, and I think this is a lot better. Paul and the other New Testament authors believed that we humans have all been infected by this disease of sin – we have a ‘sinful nature’ – which is why growth in virtue and goodness is often such a struggle for us. But Paul’s list of ‘acts of the flesh’ is a lot less ‘fleshly’ than we might expect today:

‘…sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like’ (Galatians 5:19-21a NIV 2011).

This list does include sexual sins, to be sure, but it also includes hatred and ambition, anger and jealousy, hatred and discord. Other lists in the writings of Paul have a similar breadth.

But that’s not the end of the story. Paul goes on to say,

‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22-25 NIV 2011).

Paul believed that the law of God was good but powerless to transform us, because our HPtFtU makes us unable to keep God’s laws by dint of sheer willpower. The Ten Commandments and the other wise laws of God describe an admirable way of life, but for all the good they do us, we might just as well be people who have just learned their times tables attempting the mysteries of higher mathematics.

Fortunately for us, there’s another principle at work: the coming of God to live in us by his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power and love of God at work in the world and in people. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ gift to us; on the day of Pentecost, he (the Spirit) came and filled the early Christians, and he’s been doing it ever since.

Sometimes people have dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit; sometimes (perhaps most often) they don’t. But the most amazing work he does is to strengthen us to do the ordinary little things Jesus calls us to do day by day. Paul says it’s like a tree growing fruit. As the life flows through the tree, the fruit grows naturally. And as the life of God flows in us by the Spirit, so we grow the fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance and so on. True Christlike character, in other words.

Is there nothing for us to do, then? Most certainly not! If we do nothing, nothing’s going to be the result!

So what should we do? Well, we’ve been given the gift of the Spirit, now Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians to ‘go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’, and here he tells us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’. I take these to be two different ways of attempting to describe the same experience: living our lives in conscious contact with the Holy Spirit, asking him each day to fill us, listening for his guidance, turning to him for help.

This is a different dynamic than law-keeping: it’s more personal, more relational, and certainly more joyful. God is love, John tells us, and ‘God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Romans 5:5 NIV 2011). Only the Spirit of God can give us the power to live out the love of God in our daily lives. And so, Father, please fill us today with the Holy Spirit and help us to keep in step with the Spirit, so that he may grow in us that lovely fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.