God's Call to Love,
by Traci West
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "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 neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
"But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him....
"Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
Luke 10:25-34; 36-37
For most who strive to be faithful Christians, it is shocking to define our calling to follow Jesus in terms of hating other people. We think of ourselves as people of faith who would never accept such a wrong-headed notion. But if we agree that Jesus would never tell us to hate certain kinds of people, why is there so much hatred directed against others in the name of Jesus Christ?
When we read Gospel passages. like this one from Luke, Jesus message is direct and uncomplicated: love God, love neighbor....Go do it.
Looking at the details in this passage can help us understand how Christianity and hatred get mixed up together. It provides us with clues about how to stay clear and focused on Gods calling to be loving.
One clue is found in how Jesus tries to guide the lawyer who is questioning him. The lawyer seems to be a member of the faith community who is engaging in the custom of debating the law. He is testing Jesus. He tries to control Jesus by making Jesus answer to him.
After Jesus responds to this lawyer by letting him answer his own question, the lawyer seems more compelled to assert himself as the one in charge. He seeks to justify his views and regain control by testing Jesus with a follow-up question.
As we observe the lawyer struggling with Jesus, we gain insight into how we can be tempted to turn away from the path of loving behavior. In our struggles to control God, hatred can take root in our lives. Like the lawyers initial question about eternal life, our contest with God can be instigated by the desire to control our fate, to justify who we are, to prove something about ourselves. We want to feel important, and being important in our society is often defined as being superior to others. If we can control God by giving out Gods permission to hate certain people, we can feel important.
Fortunately, God cannot be controlled by any of us.
In telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tries to guide the lawyer away from self-justifying tactics. He offers a concrete example of the loving behavior God requires of us.
In the parable, two religious leaders, who share the Jewish beliefs of Jesus and the lawyer, show disregard for the man who has been robbed and beaten. In contrast, the Samaritan shows kindness. The Samaritan is a member of a schismatic -- a group considered racially impure that holds heretical religious beliefs. Jesus audience would have been shocked by introduction of this character as the loving one.
The neglectful actions of the priest and the Levite were probably based on their dedication to God. They may have been observing religious rules that required them to avoid contact with what they thought could be a dead body.
But Jesus teaches his listeners that dedication to God is linked to ones love of neighbor. The parable illustrates the inseparability of loving God and loving neighbor.
Failing to maintain this connection fuels the hatred many contemporary Christians find themselves able to justify. Divorcing acts of love for God from relationships with people around us allows us to be prejudiced against certain groups of people. It allows us to mistreat or ignore our neighbors.
The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us something quite different. It teaches us our love for God is diminished when we diminish others. We are diminished and we diminish others, and we foster hate, when we laugh at jokes about Jews, nod in agreement with statements about minorities getting everything or pass by on the other side pretending we are not involved.
When Jesus finished telling the parable, he redirected the lawyers question about who is my neighbor. He transformed the lawyers concern into a question about which traveler on the road acted as a neighbor to the wounded stranger. Jesus shifts the understanding of Gods commandment of love from the lawyers emphasis on deciding who matters to God to consideration of what actions matters to God.
To decide God offers concern for some people and not others twists the tradition allowing some to assert a religious basis for hate. Rationalizing hatred this way claims that loving God means identifying those who have earned Gods favor.
For example, it allows us to speak for God by pointing at poor women who apply for public-assistance funds or at gay men and lesbians as those who are not on Gods list of good people. It allows us to disregard these people as neighbors to love in the way we love ourselves and our own.
But Jesus teaches us that God is concerned with our attitudes and actions toward those who have been beaten up and beaten down, even when everybody else could care less if they are left for dead. Jesus makes a point of showing us that differences between our identity and that of our neighbors must not prevent us from loving them. Loving them as we love ourselves means treating them with generosity and kindness.
When the rationalizations and messages that tell us to feel good about ourselves by putting others down bombard us from politicians, talk-show hosts, websites, family members, even clergy and church friends, let us remember what God truly requires of us. It is not complicated. Jesus taught: Love God, Love neighbor....Go do it.
The Rev. Traci C. West, Ph.D., an ordained United Methodist elder and clergy member of the New York Conference, is an assistant professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University Theological Seminary in Madison, N.J.