Love Thy Neighbor?

I recently wrote about Jesus and Politics and, since these are blog posts and not doctoral dissertations, I didn’t go into a lot of detail on examples of how people twist faith for political gain.  Honestly, you could write a book, and many have, on interpretations of scripture or misinterpretations of scripture.  I do, however, want to cover one topic that I believe gets twisted, and I may do a couple more of these in the future.  

In Matthew 22, Jesus famously says that the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  For the most part, all of us are guilty of ignoring this commandment. We make plenty of excuses as to why this person doesn’t deserve it, or that group is unworthy of our love. Those on the one side tend to attempt to justify it, but they don’t really make excuses for it.  They are guilty of it, but they tend to be ashamed of it at the same time.  Those on the other side, combine this sin with another, pride, to take great pleasure in their hatred of certain people or groups.  The justification is that it’s good to hate those who hate (whether or not those people they target truly hate is another conversation for another day).  These people will then throw Jesus back in your face, because they think that holding certain opinions is evidence of love, and they love everyone, everywhere, all the time.  Just ask them, they’ll tell you.  

Before we delve too far into this, we need to answer a few basic questions:

1.     Who is your neighbor?

2.     What does it mean to love them?

3.     How do we show compassion to those who are not our neighbors?

Who is your neighbor?

Is there any Scripture, Old or New Testament, that says, “Thou shalt love every person on Earth?”  If there is, I’ve never even heard of it, let alone read it.  In the context of Scripture and in the context of life, our neighbors are those people in close proximity to us.  Those people in our sphere of influence.  They are the people we might come into contact with today, or this week. While this means that not all seven billion people on Earth are your neighbors, it’s really no less daunting because this means that not only are your actual neighbors, your neighbors, but that person you see in the supermarket is your neighbor.  The guy who works in the gas station is your neighbor.  Your co-workers, the people at the gym, the folks at your church, all of them, and more, are your neighbors.  Just because it doesn’t mean everyone on earth, it’s still a lot of people.  And, as I’ve written before, love is an action verb, this means there are a lot of people you have to do things with or for.  You cannot just think good thoughts, you have to act on this love.  

I think one of the reasons people claim to love everyone on earth is it makes it easier to be a jerk to that person in traffic, or be rude to the waiter at the restaurant.  Perhaps it’s people over-compensating for the “proximity effect”.  By that, I mean, when you hear of a disaster halfway around the world that kills 3,000 people, you feel sad for a moment, but when you heard about 3,000 people dying on September 11th, your heart broke because it hit closer to home.  I am 100% guilty of this myself.  The thought of 3,000 Americans dying in a terrorist attack, all these years later, still brings back the heartache I felt that day.  When I see a story on the news about an earthquake or other natural disaster, or even more distant due to time, the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, I feel sorrow, say a quick prayer and then move on about my day as if it didn’t even happen.  The victims of those circumstances were no different than the victims of 9/11 in the eyes of God, but, I am not God.  I am human, and I have limitations.  I just don’t have the capacity to love a stranger the way I love my daughter, or to love a person halfway around the world the way I love the folks who live two doors down.  God has that capacity, but I don’t.

What does it mean to love your neighbor?

After establishing who are neighbors are, the question is, how do we show them love?  Well, there’s a thousand different ways depending on the situation, so I won’t go into details here, but just cover the basics.  Be kind to everyone you see.  Don’t judge people, even if they’re not kind to you.  Be patient with people.  Observe the Golden Rule, how would you want to be treated in a given situation? If in doubt, read what Paul had to say about it in Romans 12:9-21.  You can’t beat his words of wisdom.  Again, you must act

How do we show compassion to those outside our sphere of influence?

There are numerous ways to accomplish this as well, but first and foremost, we must remember every human being, from conception, is a child of God no different than we are.  We can condemn actions or ideas, but we must not condemn the people themselves, lest we too be condemned.  Whether the person who we feel ill will towards is a Muslim suicide bomber, an American “white nationalist” (more on that soon), or any other person, we must remember no person is beyond redemption or God’s grace.  

When opportunities arise to help those far away, whether that be sponsor a mission trip to Uganda or donate a few bucks to earthquake relief in India, we should help if we can.  However, we cannot allow these small actions to justify patting ourselves on the back and then ignoring those folks we come into contact with every day.  Our duty is to those closest to us first, then to others, if we’re able.  It’s not about time and money, it’s about love.

In conclusion, WWJD?

WWJD, or What Would Jesus Do? Is a good reminder to wear around your wrist to do the right thing. However, remember to actually ask yourself the question.  Would Jesus sit in judgment of a person, or would Jesus show kindness to that person? Would Jesus treat this guy poorly because the last person he had contact with was a jerk to him?  Let God judge when it’s all said and done, but until then, don’t bogart the grace.  God gives us grace and it’s up to us to share it and there’s no better way to show God’s love and grace than to act it out for others to experience, whether they deserve it or not.  Maybe especially if they don’t deserve it.  

Your Actions Are Your Faith

Over the weekend, Ben Shapiro had his Sunday Conversation with a Catholic priest. I will first admit I didn’t watch it, however, one of the highlights in the Facebook post was about how the priest says that good-natured atheists will go to heaven.  Of course, the comments section was filled with angry Protestants quoting scripture about “faith alone.”  Personally, I think both of these folks have it wrong.  The priest is wrong because it is not your acts that will save you and the angry masses are wrong because, while it may be faith that saves you, your actions are a manifestation of your faith.  If you’re not out in the world doing God’s work, then how strong is your faith?

I don’t believe these two points are equally important to us.  Who God does or does not let into heaven is His decision, not mine, therefore I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. However, let us break down these two points of view.

 

You are saved by faith alone.

This is mostly a point of view given by those who throw scripture verses at people instead of mounting a logical, and theological, argument.  They claim to be Biblical literalists but eat bacon wrapped shrimp and let their wives sleep in the bed with them while they’re menstruating.  In this case, as my pastor said recently, I can say whatever I want to, but if you follow me around for a week or two, you’ll see what I really believe.

Do I believe that, as Paul said, I am saved by faith through grace? Absolutely.  100%.  It is because of that I want to live that life.  Not just go to church on Sunday, not just tell people I love Jesus, but I want to be like Jesus.  As much as I can be anyhow.  I believe that one day I’m going to be asked things like, “Why did you do this?  And why didn’t you do that?”  I want that questioning to be as short as possible (prediction, I’m going to be there for a while).  

I am a firm believer that what you put into yourself is what comes out of you. Whether that is physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.  If you eat like crap, you are going to feel like crap.  If you’re inputting hate into your heart, hate is going to come out of you. If you put Jesus into your heart, truly put Him in your heart and not just pay him lip service, something Jesus-like will come out of you.  You will live a life of service to your loved ones, to your community and to Him.  It is my observation that many Christians, too many Christians, like to play the part but they’re afraid to do the work on themselves and therefore, they do very little work to serve others.  

I believe that the folks who are always screaming about “faith alone” are doing so because they’re worried about their own faith.  Let’s be honest here, a judgmental Facebook comment is not going to convert anyone to Christ or change someone’s theology.  They’re posting that to try and alleviate their own fears. The reality is, if you talk the talk, you better walk the walk.

A good-natured atheist will go to Heaven.

I don’t know.  That’s the simple answer.  There is far more to God than what we can find in scripture.  The Bible is for humans, so that we get to know God and what God wants for us.  It’s not a biography of God, nor His memoirs or a list of questions and answers humans will have.  Sure, there’s a lot of that stuff in there, but it’s far from a complete picture.  While I don’t think a priest should be advocating for “saved through works,” I do think there’s a sound theological argument for it, but it has more to do with the eternal spirit than it has to do with works alone.

This idea first came to me from Fr. John Dear, a priest (former Jesuit) I was acquainted with in Chicago.  We had this conversation on my back porch over beers and brats along with my friend Doug. At the time, it blew my mind and caused me, as humans are wont to do, to go extreme in my counter-argument, “I just can’t believe Hitler is in heaven.”  The conversation went something like this:

Fr. John: What is God’s sole desire of us?

Jeremy: For us to love Him as He loves us.

Fr. John: Do you believe the soul and our consciousness is eternal?

Jeremy: Yes, of course.

Fr. John: So, what do you imagine a life-long atheist will say to God when he dies and comes face to face with the awesomeness that is God?

Jeremy: He would immediately realize he was wrong, beg for forgiveness and worship and love God.

Fr. John: And does God forgive, always?

Jeremy: Yes, of course.

Fr. John: So, then, the atheist, now being a believer, would be welcomed into the kingdom?

Jeremy: By that logic, yes.

Now, is that true?  I don’t know. While I studied theology as part of my degree from DePaul and I have wrestled with many of these issues over the years, I am by no means an expert.  I do believe that the theology is sound and I do believe that in heaven there will be none of the things that sew evil into the hearts of man like there is on earth.  There will be no mental illness, no hate, no greed, no lust for power, no abuse and no violence.  None of the things that cause us to harm one another here on earth.  I also want to believe in an inclusive God, who understands His children, what they went through and why they may not have been able to find faith in this lifetime.  As my buddy Rob said recently at our small group, maybe some people, after death, will still deny God and those people will go to hell.  

This second point is a fun and interesting intellectual exercise, but ultimately, it’s something I spend little time thinking about.  Your soul is your responsibility the same as mine is mine. Don’t worry about who goes to heaven and who doesn’t, that’s God’s responsibility, not ours.  

As to the first point, I believe that I have a duty to talk with fellow Christians and try to inspire them to do more, to help more and to live out their faith. Yet, even that, there is a limit to my ability to influence.  Again, your soul is your responsibility and mine is mine.  If I ask you if you are living out your faith, and you tell me yes, then I will believe you, but only you and God know if that’s really true. Though I will say, no matter how good of a person you are, the reality is, the honest answer for all of us is really “no” because there’s always going to be areas where we could be better.  

Ultimately, this all comes down to common sense.  If your desire is to spread the love of God, you just have to stop and ask yourself before you act, “Is this going to further God’s message or not?” If the answer is no, leave it.  No one is going to be converted to Christ through your Facebook comment, but they might be by your actions of love and generosity.