During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are discussing practical implications of the theme of “Love Your Neighbor” for Christians in Boston. Last week, Rev. Kelly Fassett discussed “To Whom Must I Become A Neighbor?” and this week, Rev. Devlin Scott challenges us to consider how we might inadvertently seek to justify ourselves instead of fully embracing Jesus’ radical acceptance.
Jesus was known for who He “included” rather than who He “excluded.”
And to that statement, let the church say, Amen. We’re familiar with the narratives showcasing Jesus’s profound love and the courageous sense of community he embodied. He interacted with diverse individuals—the woman at the well, the outcast in the wilderness, the woman caught in an illicit act, the tax collector who exploited his people, the zealot, and those with physical impairments. The company Jesus kept was quite extraordinary and diverse, including individuals with varying interpretations of scripture (the Torah).
Jesus had been establishing a reputation that revolutionized how people perceived their God and faith. However, a segment of society regarded his approach as excessively radical, potentially sinful, and even blasphemous. In an apparent show of bravery, yet with an underlying motive to test Jesus, one man engaged in a series of questions. He initiated with, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25 NIV)? This query, a common concern across various religions and notably within Christianity, delved into the pursuit of eternal life and the essence of religious law, commonplace in Judaic discussions. It’s worth noting the man’s presumption that his actions could merit or contribute to attaining eternal life.
Jesus steered the conversation back to the teachings of the Old Testament, an area where the man held expertise and which served as the primary source of religious wisdom. When asked by Jesus, the expert in the law promptly cited the familiar commands: “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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” This mirrored Jesus’ own instruction (Mt 22:37-40), indicating the man’s familiarity with these teachings found in the Old Testament (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18). Jesus appreciated the accuracy of the man’s response, much like praising a child who flawlessly recites a memorized verse. However, the subsequent question wasn’t a test for Jesus; it aimed to justify the man’s position or perhaps refine the command. Commentator and Biblical scholar Kenneth L. Barker suggests, “The only way to justify oneself is to limit the extent of the law’s demand and consequently limit one’s own responsibility.” The expert in the law sought to rationalize or narrow down his personal obligation by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
This move doesn’t just fall short; it actually achieves the opposite effect. Jesus responds by sharing the parable of the Good Samaritan. As Kelly eloquently delved into last week, Jesus’ answer to the man’s query didn’t narrow down his responsibility to his neighbor, nor did it restrict the definition of who could be considered a neighbor – it widened both aspects. Essentially, Jesus’ reply to the question, “who is my neighbor?” highlighted that he had more neighbors than he had assumed and to truly embody being a good neighbor, he needed to extend far more care and support than he might have initially imagined.
I wonder what derivative of this law-limiting, responsibility-shrinking question we are still asking today? When confronted with the idea of loving our neighbor, are we still attempting to rationalize ourselves, our stances, our theological perspectives, our doctrinal convictions, and our traditional values? While we might acknowledge the command, similar to the expert in the law, are we interpreting it in a manner that enables us to evade a radical response, akin to the teachings Jesus imparted through the parable of the Good Samaritan? What is our version of the evading question, “who is my neighbor?” Let’s consider two examples; one that is quite familiar and one that I propose we reconsider.
The saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a common phrase, often seen by many Christians as a reasonable way to express care for individuals while maintaining strong convictions on various matters. It’s a poetic, passionate, and powerful notion, frequently quoted and attributed to Mahatma Gandhi in his 1929 autobiography. However, Gandhi’s full statement delivers a different message: “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.” This fuller context might not align with the intent of using it to justify or limit responsibility. Moreover, when considering the perspective of the “sinner,” they might not perceive themselves as your neighbor upon hearing this phrase. It’s an easily accessible idea but falls short of encapsulating the depth of Jesus’ message portrayed through the actions depicted in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Consider this: Churches nowadays often emphasize being “Bible-believing” as a distinguishing factor. The statement would suggest that there are “churches” that do not believe the Bible. Certainly, that can be true. There are gatherings of people that might identify as a church where the Bible is not the sacred word of their deity, nor is it considered in their religious spaces. By this description, these wouldn’t be Christian churches and neither would they claim to be. Additionally, “Bible Believing” churches might even say that if a church does not see the Bible as inerrant or infallible they do not see the Bible as the authoritative Word of God thus they aren’t “Bible Believing.” But that is not a view that those they are describing would support. A more accurate description of what is juxtaposed to a “Bible-believing” church should be articulated as follows: A Bible non-believing church is a non-Christian organization because Christ and his work and its significance are found in the Bible. Thus to be Christian, of any sect, would require belief in the Bible.
The concern is not that “Bible believing” is clarifying Christian verses non-Christian, but that it’s about segregating one kind of Christian from another; “our kind” of Christian versus “their kind” of Christian. Moreover, this emphasis is often used to specify who the group will associate with or support. And therein lies the derivative of the self-justifying, law-limiting, responsibility-shrinking question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Setting aside the idea that “Bible believing” as a label against other Christians suggests that your understanding of the Bible allows you to assert ownership over it, the phrase tends to serve as an exclusionary rather than an inclusive marker. Once more, I doubt that those presumed to be “Bible non-believers” feel a sense of neighborliness when this barrier is raised.
Jesus adeptly navigated this by providing the dignity, acceptance, and sense of belonging that those usually marginalized within the church required, all the while upholding the OT law instead of abolishing it (Matthew 5:17-20).
I encourage you to reflect not only on “who your neighbor is,” but also on how we might inadvertently seek to justify ourselves instead of fully embracing Jesus’ radical acceptance. Remember, Jesus prophesied in his prayer in John 17 that the world would recognize him through how we, his followers, understand and live out our responsibility to one another, that we are unified as one.
As we prayerfully contemplate the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let us strive to emulate Jesus – aiming to include rather than exclude. Let’s introspect, examining our hearts for instances where we might be attempting to justify ourselves by restricting the law or our responsibility. May we lean towards generosity, compassion, and love, rather than starting from a place of scarcity or segregation. Let’s simply and boldly love our neighbor – all of our neighbors – deeply and without reservation. Let the church say, Amen.