this is a talk i'll be giving in sacrament meeting tomorrow. a sneak peek for those who read it before 1pm.
And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
[Jesus] said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
And [Jesus] said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
But [the lawyer], willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
“And who is my neighbor?” Before we go to Jesus' response let's look at how we might normally respond to this question. It seems like a rather easy one to answer – After all, we were taught as children along with the alphabet, numbers, shapes, the fact that cookies are desirable, and what a snuffleupagus is, by Sesame Street just “who are the people in your neighborhood?”
Well, they're the people that you meet
When you're walking down the street
They're the people that you meet each day
This is how we usually define 'who is my neighbor.' They are the people that we meet each day.
However if we look at Jesus' mortal ministry we can readily see that those he paid the most attention to were not the people that we normally meet each day – rather, it was those that we don't see each day. He spent his time going to the socially outcast, the other. These were the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, the prostitute, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the woman suffering from bleeding. In fact, in the Gospels Jesus pays special attention to women, who were normally among the social outcasts in the largely patriarchal culture of his day. The Pharisees even used Jesus' close relationship with the outcasts in their attempts to discredit the Savior by pointing out that he ate and drank with the lower publicans and sinners.
During his ministry Jesus did not limit his neighbors to those we would normally think of, but made sure to extend his neighborhood to include those who all others usually excluded. Perhaps if Jesus worked for Sesame Street we might sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood? They're the people you avoid each day.”
But Jesus didn't stop here with those we should include as our neighbors. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.Luke has it recorded a little differently:
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.Jesus points out that it takes no effort to love those that we normally consider our neighbors. Everybody can and easily does that. Even the publicans – those Roman sympathizers – can do that. Jesus points out that more than just extending our neighborhood from those we meet to those we avoid; we need to extend our neighborhood to include our enemies – those we may normally fear, dislike, or even hate.
For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them.
And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same. . . .
But love ye your enemies, and do good, . . . hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.
Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
This is difficult. Christ is calling us to extend our love to those we perhaps want to love the least. He is asking us to extend our love to those who have hurt or offended us, and who will probably not reciprocate that love in return.
Perhaps then, instead of asking “And who is my neighbor?” our Savior would have us ask, “And who is my enemy?” Because it is by identifying the latter we can know who we ought to be including in the former. In other words, it is by asking “And who is my enemy?” that we can fully realize the breadth of those we should be calling our neighbors.
For some 'enemies' it may be easy to see that we need to extend our neighborhood to include them. These may be those who hold strong theological differences, but where we can empathize with their desire to serve God and others. With the upcoming elections (just a week away) our enemies may be those with major political differences, but with whom we can empathize with their desire to do what they think is best for the nation; Or it may be gay and lesbian couples who hold a different view of what the ideal family may be, but where we can still empathize with their desire to be able to have a secure, accepted, and loving relationship as others are able to enter into.
For other enemies it can be more difficult. On the personal level, it may be those who have belittled or hurt us for no apparent reason, those who have used us for personal gain, or thieves like the person who stole my dear sweet beloved mountain bike while I was attending institute on Wednesday. On a larger scale our enemies may be ideologies that we perceive to threaten our way of life, or terrorists or nations who seek to expand their empire or use violence to force their government and culture on others.
Let's turn back to the conversation we began with between the lawyer and Jesus. In response to the question “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with what is probably the most famous of his parables – the Parable of the Good Samaritan – where we can see him pointing to the more difficult of questions “And who is my enemy?”
Before we read it though – to understand what Jesus was doing here we must understand that in Christ's day if there was any group of people that the Jews despised and hated more than the Romans, it was the Samaritans. And that says a lot as the Jews did not like the Romans. This dislike of the Romans is why the publicans get such a bad rap in the New Testament. More than just being mere 'tax-collectors', the publicans were Jews who sympathized with the Roman oppression and used it to make money through building contracts and other agreements with the Roman oppressors – often to the detriment of their fellow Jews. However as much as the Jews disliked the Romans, they acknowledged that the Roman rule had at least done them some good. As the Peoples Front of Judea determine in Monty Python's The Life of Brian,
“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
The Samaritans, on the other hand, were seen to have nothing to contribute to the Jews and were thought of as a group that could only be hated and despised.
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.Jesus does at least three things here by having the protagonist of his parable be a Samaritan. By having him help out and show mercy to the (mostly likely Jewish) victim, Jesus shows that we need to extend our neighborhood across its normal boundaries to include those whom we would normally consider our enemies. Second, by using the Samaritan as the exemplar of mercy and love, Jesus points out how flawed our habits to categorizes and judge others who differ from us are. Finally, by using a Samaritan (as opposed to a Jew), Jesus forces this lawyer to acknowledge that this person whom he would normally hate is really the neighbor he needs to love the most. We can still see the lawyer's unwillingness to accept this fact when he refuses to name the Samaritan in his final answer, but instead identifies him merely as “He that shewed mercy on him.”
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
And [the lawyer] said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
Merely identifying our enemies as those whom we ought to include as our neighbors is not enough though. The question that began the discussion with Jesus and culminated in the parable of the Good Samaritan was not “And who is my neighbor?” But was “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus' answer was to love God and to love our neighbors, with the Good Samaritan as the example of how this is done. In Matthew 22:35-39 (which is most likely a variant of this same account) Jesus identifies the commandments to love God and our neighbor as the two great commandments. If, as Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount, that loving our enemy is greater than loving our friend, then we could easily say that the first and great commandment is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. . . . And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy enemy as thyself.”
What does it mean then to love our enemies? First we need to understand that the commandments to love god and love our enemies are not mutually exclusive commandments. In fact, rather than being different commandments they are essentially the same. In John's Gospel Christ taught “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Minutes later he clarifies, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). To love God is to love our enemies and to love our enemies is to love God. Jesus again points this out in Matthew 25 where speaks of those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, took in the strangers, cared for the sick, and visited the criminals in prison and says “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the lease of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt 25:40).
There are many ways that we can love our enemies, each of them different according to the situation. However there are some ways that can be applied to any enemy we choose to embrace and call neighbor.
The first is to not judge. This is often difficult when we know the pain and hurt the guilty enemy has caused. Father Zosima, a priest in Fyodor Dostoevsky's book, The Brothers Karamazov says something about this that have I found to be helpful. He says:
“Above all, remember that you cannot be anyone's judge. No man on earth can judge a criminal until he understands that he himself is just as guilty as the man standing before him and that he may be more responsible than anyone else for the crime . . . For it is possible that, if I myself had been upright, this man would not be standing before me accused of a crime. If you can accept the responsibility for the crime committed by the man standing before you, whom you are judging in your heart, then take the crime upon yourself and pay for it with your suffering and let the accused walk away without reproach. . . .What Father Zosima is saying is that before we try to judge we need to realize that while we may not have been directly involved with the offender, we have each contributed in some way to a world of sin. Each of us at times has not been a light to others – a role that others have played in our lives in guiding us toward better decisions.
“If the evil deeds of men sadden you too greatly and arouse in you an anger you cannot overcome and fill you with the desire to wreak vengeance on the evil-doers – fear this feeling most of all, and once go and seek suffering for yourself, because you too are responsible for the evil deeds of all men. Bear that ordeal and your desire for revenge will be quenched when you understand that you were guilty yourself for having failed to shwo the light to the wicked, as a man without sin could. For if you had done so, you would have lighted the path for the sinful, and the criminal might not have committed his crime.”
Second, we need to forgive. We need to forgive even when it has not been sought. We need to forgive and trust, especially when those we are forgiving do not deserve it. As my favorite LDS writer Eugene Englad puts it:
“[Trust and forgiveness need] to be extended not because others deserve it but because they need it, because they can become trustworthy (or loving) by being nurtured in a community of trust and love. We need to extend trust, even if doing so makes us vulnerable to pain and great cost, in order to save our own souls.”This type of forgiveness was portrayed beautifully in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ where our Savior is portrayed forgiving the Roman soldiers and later the Jewish priests “who know not what they do.” And by doing this he extends this forgiveness to each of us who ignorantly contribute to the sins and pains of the world.
Finally we need to try to discover, understand, and help the needs of our enemies. For many this willingness to discover and understand is all that is needed. Too often we mis-characterize those who are different and perhaps ideologically oppose us. Because what they desire may differ from our own, under the banner of self-righteousness we instantly accuse the other of being selfish, malicious, or dangerous. Because we have not tried to love and understand them, we have been unwilling to recognize that they are truly our brothers and sisters and are not our enemies at all.
This is all easy to say, but far more difficult to do. If I am someday able to confront the thief whole stole my bike, could I really love him? I don't know. Christ is asking a lot of me – especially when it most likely won't end with a warm-fuzzy seminary story where the thief turns out to be a poor orphan kid who meant to merely borrow the bike for a few minutes before he had to go back to his foster home where he would be enslaved and beaten. If that were the case, I am sure I could find myself loving him much more easily, perhaps even offering my bike freely to him, and the story would end as President Monson might end it – 'hearts were touched. Tears were shed. And friendships were established that would be eternal.'
Perhaps this is the same difficulty Christ's apostles felt after he commanded the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, explaining to his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. They were astonished. Who could possibly do what Christ asked required of us. Who has the strength to give up all they have to the poor, they wondered. “Who then can be saved?”(Mark 10:26). Similarly we can ask, who of us has the strength to truly love our enemies? If this is a requirement for eternal life, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus' answer remains the same, “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
Alone this is impossible, but with God's love and help we can be able to love our enemies. I urge all of us too ask ourselves, “And who is my enemy?” and then pray for God's assistance to help us reach out and love them, to share that love that Christ has freely given us – even when we have at times been an enemy to him.
I know that God lives and that by him we can know how to love as he does. I now finish with a final song from my childhood that I hope we can extend to those we believe to be our enemies:
So let's make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we're together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
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