Love who?

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Luke 10:25-29 NLT

I wrote previously about how love, which is such a popular word nowadays, rather than being a feeling, is an action. The “expert in religious law,” in this story about Jesus, asked him what he should do to find life. Jesus said simply “Love!” Love, he implies, is something that you do, rather than something that you feel. Of course feelings are involved, as they are in every part of human experience, but they are just an aspect of love, rather than the central thing. Love is our primary task in this life, the thing that should be our daily focus, the overarching principle of our lives, and the thing that brings “eternal life.” As we engage in the task of loving our lives gain meaning and purpose. It is so important that it is vital that we gain a proper understanding of what love is. This passage in Luke’s gospel helps us begin to understand.

Interestingly, when the priest asked Jesus, “What should I do?” Jesus didn’t immediately answer with just one word, “Love!” even though that would have been a much more acceptable response to the modern ear. Instead he answered with a question which would have appealed to the man’s own area of expertise, the Law. Even though Jesus was probably aware of the man’s skepticism towards him, possibly even hostility, by answering the way he did Jesus affirmed the priest in his own professional identity. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “You are the expert, you have studied the Law for years, what do you make of it?” The man answered without hesitation, happily displaying his knowledge, and Jesus immediately affirmed him for his answer. “You are right!” Jesus said. I love the way Jesus could so easily and naturally affirmed people, even when he sensed their opposition. The man would have felt recognised for who he was, he would have felt seen and heard. Jesus had entered his world, and was speaking his language. We can learn something from that.

As affirmed as the priest may have felt, he was not going to leave it there. He had established Jesus’ orthodoxy as a believer in the Law, but perhaps because the Law had become a worn out cliche for the priest, something so familiar it had lost its power, he wanted to know more. He suspected that Jesus had more to say and he was right. But it’s an interesting question he asks. Had I been there, I might have asked, “so what does the Law mean by love?” But the priest asked, “Who is my neighbour?” The story Jesus told in reply is one of the most profound teachings on love that has ever been spoken and has been a foundation stone of Christian behaviour, morality and ethics ever since. The story of “the Good Samaritan” answers two questions: who should I love? And, how should I love? In so doing it tells us what love is.

First, the question of who? I will look at the question of how in another blog. According to the Jewish law, which the priest quoted and which Jesus affirmed, we should love God, and our neighbour. The priest’s response is, “And who is my neighbour?” In our multi-religious and multi-cultural world a person who met Jesus might ask, “And who is God?” We live in a world where people worship many gods, some of which are more “spiritual” but others are more material, or even existential. The Hindu religion has many hundreds of gods. Pantheistic thought sees the earth and nature as gods to be worshipped and loved. Animistic religions venerate the spirits of animals and objects. Over the centuries people have worshipped the sun and the stars, but also the spirits of animals and trees. In the materialistic Western world of today, many have abandoned spiritual gods and worship instead the gods of wealth and pleasure, or even the gods of security and comfort and beauty.

The priest doesn’t ask “and who is this God I should love?” because the answer was self evident to him, and to Jesus, and to those who were gathered around listening to this discussion. When the Law said “Love the Lord your God,” it was speaking of the God of Israel. The Jews knew him by many names, they knew his actions through history, his dealings with them as a nation, they knew his nature and character. They knew him as the eternal creator and sustainer of all things. They knew him as their provider and healer. They knew him as their Father and as the one who gave them their unique identity as a people. They knew him as the almighty, omnipresent God, the one to be loved and worshiped above all else and all others.

But who was the “neighbour” that the law spoke about? No doubt the religious experts had an answer for that question, but whether the priest who met Jesus was just testing his orthodoxy by asking this question, or whether he was dissatisfied with the conventional answer and genuinely wanted to know what Jesus thought, is not clear. What is clear is the answer Jesus gave. There are two neighbours described in his story. One is the Samaritan, and Jesus implies that the Samaritan is the neighbour the Jews should love. The other is the man lying on the road, presumably a Jew, who the Samaritan loved as a neighbour. Jesus’ agenda is clear. He wants us to love our enemies. He had said this before, and now he is saying it again. Love is at the centre of Jesus’ message, as it is at the centre of the Old Testament Law. But as popular as love is, the way Jesus describes love was and is a hard teaching.

There is another aspect to the question of who we should love, and that is also difficult. I am thinking of the man lying in the road, the man that most people avoided. I would have avoided him. He had been assaulted and beaten and left for dead. He was not a pretty sight. But these are the ones we should love: the abandoned, the beaten, the broken, the needy, the poor, the suffering, the dying. These are the situations we need to allow ourselves to be drawn into. I naturally avoid such people and situations. Jesus says that if I want to find life I need to stop, cross the road, see, listen, and reach out.

It is easy when we think of neighbours as our friends, the people we know, the people we like. It is easy when we think of neighbours as the “nice people” who live in our neighbourhood, people like us, who speak the same language, follow the same traditions, look the same as us. It is easy to be a neighbour to the beautiful, the interesting, the intelligent, the funny. Neither the Law, nor Jesus, need to remind us of that. But Jesus says that our neighbour is not only the person we would naturally, instinctively love. It is just as much our enemy, it is the needy, it is the ugly and forsaken.

And according to Jesus, and the Old Testament law, to love people like this, and to love the Lord our God, (which is in some ways just as “unnatural” and difficult) is the path to life.

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