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loving my neighbour

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I have been teaching a mini-series in our faith community dealing with the three interconnected loves found in the answer to the question, "Which is the most important commandment?" Jesus' reply is this: "You should love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second great commandment is this: Love others in the same way as you love yourself. There are no commandments more important than these" (Mark 12:30-31, The Voice).

You can find a summary of my first talk on loving yourself here. Now I turn my attention to what it means to rightly relate to our neighbour, or to the other. It is imperative to remember that we cannot neatly dissect these three relationships; how we relate to ourselves is directly related to how we perceive God relates to us and likewise, how we relate to others is directly related to how we believe God views the other. If any one of these relationships (to ourselves, to others, to God) are out of whack, the others are affected. I have been reading a book by Kathleen Norris on the vocabulary of faith. It is her attempt to review and reclaim some of the terms which have been hurtful and unhelpful in their use within religious settings. One of the chapters is titled, "Hell," and she makes a rather shocking statement which directly ties together our relationship with God to our relationship with the other. She writes: "How human beings treat each other has everything to do with our concept of hell." [1] Really?

What she is saying is that if we view God as a cold, harsh judge who declares certain people in (you deserve to enter heaven) and certain people out (you deserve to be cast into hell), we will treat others in this same, cold manner. We will either accept people into our circle or reject them based on our assessment of their goodness. Is this what Jesus calls us to do? Let's look at Matthew 25 where Jesus is telling some parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like. He first talks about the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom and then about the master who left his servants with talents to invest during his absence. After these stories we find another metaphor in which the Son of Man, the King of glory, is compared to a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. The emphasis has often been placed on the statements of judgment: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" versus "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." However, I believe that the point of the story is not to show us a glimpse of the final judgment, but to describe the actions of sheep who know their shepherd's voice; in other words, it is another description of what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. It is about how to love (rightly relate) to the other.

Jesus says: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." The language here is that of hospitality: treating others with kindness, having a welcoming attitude, and offering the basic necessities to the marginalized and outcasts of society. We also see the language of proximity: those who are welcoming and generous are seen as coming closer to the King of glory (come). Those who do not extend hospitality are depicted as becoming more distant from the King (depart from me). Finally, there is the language of recognition: Jesus indicates that the Son of Man, the King of glory, can be seen in the other, especially the outcast, the poor and the needy. We are invited to recognise Jesus in these unlikely (and perhaps unlikable) forms, and to love God through loving others. Kathleen Norris writes: "Christ will recognize us at the judgment if he already knows us, if he has seen our faces as we served the outcasts of this world; the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned. The promise is that we will recognize him as well, as we have already met him in these others." [2]

As Christians in the Western world, we can assume a position of superiority all too quickly. Jesus is quick to condemn this attitude. In Matthew 5, he says, "If you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell [gehenna] of fire." Norris comments on this: "I shudder to think of all the times that I have dismissed other people in this way, at least in my thoughts, which count. It may be permissible to identify another's behavior as foolish, particularly if it also forces me to reflect on my own foolishness. But to say, "you fool," is to negate God's presence in a creature God has made. It is to invite God's absence, which is my definition of hell." [3] Strong words. We would do well to heed them.

Henri Nouwen indicates that as followers of Jesus, our relationships to others should move from hostility toward hospitality. Our vocation is to convert the enemy (hostis) into a guest (hospes), a loved one. When we see Jesus present in others, we seek to reveal the promise they carry within them as image-bearers of God. In rightly relating to others, we are called to create space where change can take place, both in ourselves and in them. We are to do what Christ has done for us, and that is to love without the assurance that we will be loved back. "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Nouwen also notes that in order to truly appreciate hospitality, we must become strangers ourselves and be willing to give up the position of host. This means that we are willing to relinquish home turf and situate ourselves outside of places of comfort and plenty; we are willing to embrace discomfort and need.

In contrast to the assumption that we need to have much in order to be hospitable or generous, Nouwen suggests that poverty makes a good host. He outlines three areas where we can practice poverty and thereby, become more hospitable to others [4]
1. Poverty of posture: "We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, 'Please enter - my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,' we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give."
2. Poverty of mind: "Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other."
3. Poverty of heart: "When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for the stranger."

I started off my talk by tossing out a few names and asking people to say the first word that came to mind. I mentioned Justin Bieber, an inebriated street person outside the library where our church meets, our current Prime Minister, and the person sitting next to us. It was no surprise that there were kind words spoken about some and rather strong and distasteful ones spoken about others, but according to Jesus, all of these people are our neighbours. The lonely, needy, and hurting among us may indeed be the outcasts of society, but they may also be the rich and famous. The very briefest look at the lives of famous people from the past few decades, those whom we tend to idolize, will reveal that they too are broken and hurting, in need of healing and wholeness and friendship, just like the rest of us.

How do we relate rightly to (love) the other? By recognizing Jesus in them and making space for them at our table, in our minds, and in our hearts. Why? Because this is what Jesus does for us every day.

[1] Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 312.
[2] Norris, 314-15.
[3] Norris, 315.
[4] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1975), 73-75.


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