What is the Christian Life? Christianity in a Nutshell. 3.
Luke 10: 25 – 37
Does to love someone mean I must like them?
In this series on Christianity in a Nutshell I have said, that there are very sound reasons for believing in God. The reasons are not proofs, but they point to a longstanding intuition of humanity that says there is something greater than us and we name that something or someone God. I have argued that to think and speak of God only as the Father, Lord and King limits our understanding of God. I urged you to expand your concept of God to include the notion that God suffers with us and for us. This concept that God suffers with us and for us reflects more accurately the Biblical understanding and experience of God. I would say that the concepts of Lord and King are best used in our praise and worship of God, but they should not be exclusively used. In terms of our everyday understanding of God, God is the One who suffers with us and for us.
Today I will address the third element in this attempt to capture Christianity in a Nutshell. What is the essence of the Christian life? Yes, of course, it is love. That’s all it is – love your neighbour? But is that all we need to say?
Luke’s account of the parable of the Good Samaritan has much to teach us. When Jesus asks the lawyer what is written in the Law – referring to the Books of Law – the lawyer replies; “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.” [Lk 10:27] This lawyer is clever. He has accurately summed up all the law in these two principle statements. He knows the Scriptures. He is clever but is he wise? The Jewish lawyer reveals his lack of understanding by asking Jesus, “who is my neighbour?” If the lawyer needed to know who his neighbour was then he didn’t understand fully the concept of ‘love your neighbour’. That’s the problem. Has the lawyer fallen into the trap of thinking that love is that feeling between people who know each other and like each other? For us love is enmeshed with liking. But Jesus is not talking about this personal love. For God, loving is not about liking!
When I became the CEO of the Churches’ State school chaplaincy and religious education ministry I knew I had to relate to a whole lot of people as their leader. I now had a particular responsibility for them. How was I going demonstrate this seeing that I was quite friendly with a few, got on well with a number and others not so well. That is, there were a few with whom I had a lot in common and others with whom I had very little in common. I didn’t dislike them but we weren’t close. I reflected on how I might love them as my neighbour. I took God’s command to be very relevant. All I could do was to love them by being just and fair and making sure everyone had equal access to me. I wanted the best for all in that work environment. I resolved to be fair, just, and respectful to all.
The book of Leviticus contains many rules, commands and principles for living life. In Leviticus we find the command to love your neighbour as yourself [Lev 19:18]. It is the only place in all of the Old Testament that this commandment is found. In Leviticus cascading down from the command to love one’s neighbour we find a number of rules about one’s relationship to others and to the land. A few verses later God’s people are told to love the alien as yourself [Lev 19:33]. I love this word alien. It is a small word but so strong. These people don’t belong here. They have no right to be here, BUT you will love them too. What is clear is that God expects us to love all of creation – people, animals and all God has created. Why? Because God created the world! You see all the laws, rules and principles in the Bible are derived from this Great Commandment to love God and love others.
The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us what loving our neighbour entails. Here are the three characteristics I have identified.
Firstly, the Samaritan came near the man who was robbed and left for dead [Lk 10:33]. The Samaritan didn’t need to come near the man. Everyone would understand that. Firstly, you don’t know if the man lying there is a decoy. Secondly, the naked man could not be identified. You see in those days people’s clothes indicated their status and culture. He could be anyone. He could be an enemy. But the Samaritan’s compassion leads him to this person in need. The Samaritan shows Grace-full love. Grace in the Bible means giving love to the undeserved. They have neither earned the love nor have merit that deserves it. The first thing we identify about loving our neighbour is that the love is freely given and unconditional. This is the Christian concept of love – the Jesus concept. This is what grace means for the Christian.
Secondly, we see that the Samaritan not only took a risk in stopping, but also ended up giving his time, resources and money. Costly love is the character of loving our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus showed us how costly love can be. Now the Christian is not asked to simply love her/his friends and associates but to love all, even those we perceive to be undeserving. Our love will cost us in one way or another, because loving is about giving not taking.
Thirdly, Christian love is Courageous love. Christian love is not about being nice to people. Christian love is not about conventional civility. Christian love is about justice and justice requires toughness. Christian love will challenge our friends’ and foes’ unjust and harmful behaviour. It is the strength that says; ‘I will seek justice even if it hurts me’. It is the toughness that leads to saying NO when YES or silence would be so much easier. To stand up for someone who is in need or is marginalised requires courage.
Did you notice that Jesus never answered the lawyer’s question, ‘who is my neighbour’ [Lk 10:29]. The lawyer was really trying to regulate love by that request. That is, if he knew whom to love he could work at loving them. For Jesus loving one’s neighbour is not about who is the neighbour, but who is neighbourly to others. Jesus’ parable makes it clear that we cannot identify the man because all identifying marks have been taken – he is stripped bare. The robbed man lying could not be identified. The Samaritan couldn’t say; “Oh, he looks like a teacher, or a merchant or doctor’ The Samaritan couldn’t tell whether the man was a homeless tramp, a petty thief or respectable citizen. No, he had no means of knowing what he was like let alone of knowing if he was a likeable fellow. The Samaritan had compassion, stepped forward in good faith and gave this man what he needed. The Samaritan gave this man what he would have wanted for himself. That is why the commandment to love our neighbour is followed ‘as you love yourself’.
How can we love others in this way? We know how we fail to love. Our love often stops short when our self-interest is threatened. We feel more comfortable loving in an environment we know than in a strange environment. We love better in the island of our certitude than in the ocean of uncertainty and mystery. We live in a world desperately needing to be loved – people, creatures and the environment all need to be loved. Yet our very need for love demonstrates that we struggle to love. Our concept of love is limited to personal experiences and needs. We are clearly given the scope of neighbourly love. Christian neighbourly love is compassion shown to anyone who is hurting. And what we should do is described by ‘love another as you love yourself’. Therein lies a problem. If I am to love others as I love myself, what do I do if I actually don’t love myself? That’s a problem. But the commandment to love our neighbour has been preceded by another commandment to love God. Herein lies a profound clue as to how we may learn to love more. That is, by loving God we learn that we are loved and that in loving God we become more loving.
We can love God in many ways. Our prayers and songs of praise are acts of love. When we spend time thanking God we begin to fill our minds with positive thoughts and remind ourselves of all the blessings we have received. The result is that we become thankful people. We thank God for our life and freedom in Christ Jesus. When we praise God we learn that our acts of giving praise to God become a blessing to us. Our spirits are raised. We experience God’s love for us. And physically we produce more endorphins. That’s good for us. SO through our praise and worship we experience God’s love for us and we are empowered to love others. These commandments cannot be separated. Neither can we say that because am praising God I don’t need to do anything else. Or, because I am working for justice and the well-being of others ds I don’t need to worship. The reality is that those who give most to others are those who realise their need to spend more time with God in prayer, meditation and worship of God. Worship and Christian action are not separate acts but a simultaneous process taking place in different arenas of life.
Come Holy Spirit fill the lives of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 24/11/2019