2018 Random Lent Thought #11: Neighbours and Foreigners

Sometimes our Lent disciplines can be overly individualistic. We think about our own prayer, our own fasting, our own self-denial, our own individual relationship with God. But God has a different vision. To God, holiness is social as well as personal.

This morning in my ‘One Year Bible’ readings I read Leviticus 19-20, the so-called ‘holiness code’. It begins with the famous words “Be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (19:2). But it immediately begins to define holiness in social terms: respect your father and mother; keep the Sabbath (in modern Judaism, that is very much a community discipline, and I expect the same was true in ancient times); don’t harvest your field or vineyard so thoroughly that you don’t leave something behind for the poor; don’t steal, lie, deceive one another; don’t defraud your neighbour; don’t hold back the wages of a day-labourer overnight; don’t pervert justice by showing partiality in court to either rich or poor; don’t slander your neighbour or endanger their life; love your neighbour as yourself (this is just a selection from 19:3-18).

The one that really struck me was this one: ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So they were commanded not only to love their neighbour as themselves, but the foreigner living among them – the immigrant, the refugee – as well. So all the commands about how you treat your neighbour also applied to how you treated the foreigner.

“Isn’t it awful – refugees and immigrants who haven’t paid taxes here get just the same benefits as us!” Well, in Leviticus God apparently disagrees with that sentiment. ‘The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born’.

We must not avoid thinking about these things during Lent. The way I treat my neighbour is an integral part of my relationship with God. This is not just about warm feelings and kind words; it’s about basic honesty, justice, and respect.

On Ash Wednesday we read from Isaiah 58, in which God rebukes the Israelites for following the prescribed fasts but not caring about their neighbours. ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’ (Isaiah 58:6-7; the whole chapter is worth a re-read today).

Lent is not just about ‘me and God’, because holiness is not just about ‘me and God’. Both are social. After all, Jesus has told us that the way we treat people in need is the way we treat him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How will we treat our Lord today when he comes to us in our neighbour?


10 + 1 Reasons to Oppose War

War’s destruction in Homs, Syria. MCC photo/Doug Enns

In an excellent post on the website ‘MCC Ottawa Office Notebook’, Esther Epp-Tiessen shares ’10 + 1 Reasons to Oppose War’. The post is worth reading in full, as it is extensively researched and linked to other pieces.

She begins by saying:

Remembrance Day—and, for Anabaptist-Mennonites, Peace Sunday—is once again upon us. It is the season to mourn the loss of human life in war. And the season to commit, once again, to building a culture of peace.

Resistance to war is part of the very heart of MCC.  As an agency of Anabaptist-Mennonite churches, MCC holds to the confession that war and participation in war are counter to the way of Jesus.  For us, resistance to war is at the core of our identify as pacifist Christians.

But there are many other reasons to oppose war.  And we suspect that many Canadians—who may not share our theological commitments—can nevertheless affirm these reasons.

She then outlines ten reasons to oppose war. Here’s the summary, but please do read the whole piece:

  1. War kills and harms soldiers
  2. War kills and harms civilians
  3. War creates refugees
  4. War harms the natural environment
  5. War’s financial cost is enormous
  6. War sets back development
  7. War empowers the weapons dealers
  8. War distorts truth
  9. War does not address root causes
  10. There are many nonviolent alternatives to war

Read the full post here.


The Heart of the Gospel

We are told in several places in the New Testament to follow the example of Jesus, to be ‘imitators of Christ’. This includes attitudes such as humility (eg. Philippians 2:1-11), but if we ask the question, ‘How specifically should I practice that?’ only one concrete behavioural example is given: Don’t retaliate when you are mistreated, but love your enemies (1 Peter 2.21-23).

Why is this spelled out? Because this behaviour is at the heart of the Gospel. The heart of the Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies, forgives those who murder him, and reaches out to those who reject him. We are told to ‘Go and do likewise’.


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 Saturday March 18th: ‘Who is My Neighbour?’

It’s such a convenient question, isn’t it?

A young lawyer comes to Jesus asks him what the most important commandments are. In response, Jesus says, “The most important commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself”.

‘But the lawyer wanted to justify himself’, says the gospel writer What does that mean? It means that he knew he wasn’t keeping the commandments, perhaps especially the second one, and he wanted to find an excuse. More than that – he wanted to preserve his right to continue in his disobedience! Maybe there were all kinds of people in his life he would have preferred not  to love – Samaritans, for instance, or tax collectors, or plain ordinary sinners who didn’t come up to his exacting moral standards. And so he asks Jesus for a clarification: “Who exactly is my neighbour?”

The point of that question, if you think about it, is to find out who you’re allowed not to love.

But Jesus doesn’t believe there’s anyone in the world we’re allowed not to love. In the Gospels he calls us to love our brothers and sisters, to love our neighbours, to love the poor and needy, and even to love our enemies. There’s no escape from the command to love.

And so Jesus refuses to answer the question about the neighbour. Instead, he tells the story we call ‘the Good Samaritan’. A man was attacked by robbers and left bleeding and unconscious on the side of the road. But he wasn’t dead. Who would stop to help him? A priest and a Levite went by on the other side. But a Samaritan (if you want the same impact today, read ‘a Muslim’) stopped to help him. “So who was a neighbour to the man in need?” Jesus asked. The answer is obvious: the one who showed him mercy. “Go and do likewise”.

So don’t waste time asking yourself who you’re allowed not to love. Immigrants? Refugees? People who voted for Donald Trump? Rednecks? Communists? Somalis? Syrians? First Nations people? Settlers? Sorry: you’re under orders to love all of them. So don’t waste time asking “Who is my neighbour?” When you see someone in need, don’t hesitate: if it’s in your power to help them, do so. “Do this”, Jesus says to the lawyer, “and you will live”.

Carry on.


Religion or Relationship?

We’re often told these days that ‘Christianity isn’t about religion, it’s about relationship’.

I know what people mean by that, but ‘relationship’ is actually a very modern word. It only appears once in the NRSV translation of the Bible, and that’s in the Apocrypha (4 Maccabees 2:13)! But here’s what I found when I searched for ‘religion’:

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ (James 1:27).

Three cheers for that kind of religion!



Maria Dunn: ‘When I Was Young’

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: Maria Dunn is a Canadian national treasure. She’s one of those rare songwriters who don’t spend most of their time describing the state of their own emotions, but take a profound interest in the world around them and in the lives of others. Maria has spent her career researching the stories of others – and especially those ‘others’ who are less fortunate than we are – and putting them into her beautiful and memorable songs.

Here’s a fine example – a song written from the perspective of Dorothy McDonald-Hyde, the first woman to be elected chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, and her sadness about the pollution of the Athabasca River as it flows through her home community, only sixty miles downstream from the Fort McMurray oilseeds projects. As Wendell Berry says, treat those who are downstream from you as you would like to be treated by those you are downstream from.

On this song Maria is accompanied by Shannon Johnson on violin and Jeremiah McDade on whistle. They are members of The McDades, another excellent Alberta musical ensemble. This song has been recorded on Maria’s recent CD ‘Gathering‘.

Find out more about Maria at her website here. And if you haven’t already done so, buy some of her CDs. you won’t regret it.