The 6 Most Familiar and Challenging Words of Jesus

by | Aug 10, 2015 | 2 comments

“Love God, and love your neighbor.” Those six words are familiar from the parable of the Good Samaritan, and they are at the core of Judeo-Christian ethics. Any church that seeks to be faithful will want to address the complicated meaning of that short sentence.
So we ask the same question that led Jesus to tell the parable: “And who is my neighbor?” And that is where it gets hard.  Jesus didn’t answer the question. He turned it around, and asked what characterizes neighborly behavior. Jesus’ compelling story makes it clear that the call to love your neighbor will always stretch us out beyond our comfort zones.
The stretch of neighborliness is far more demanding (and exciting!) in our modern world than it used to be. These days, we live within a rapidly changing, globalized community. We’re connected through economic systems and new forms of communication. New discoveries in science reveal layers of relationship that most of us had never even imagined.
In the 21st Century, “love your neighbor” is a far-reaching aspiration, indeed. It seems to me that today’s Christians need to be very explicit as we expand the circles of neighborliness in three ways.
1. Our neighbors include the whole human family.
A walk through the grocery or the clothing store reveals how closely we’re tied to producers in far-away parts of the world. The worldwide markets for oil tie us directly to citizens of Nigeria, where unregulated oil production devastates human health and livelihood. We are neighbors of the residents of Pacific islands, whose countries are beginning to be inundated by rising seas — a rise caused in large part by the rich world’s pollution.
In our interconnected world, we’re in close connection with all of these people through our lifestyles and our purchases. Will we “walk by on the other side” when we know of their distress and their need? Or will we respond with acts of compassion, and with work toward justice?
2. Our neighbors include future generations.
If we are neighbor to all of Earth’s people today, we also are neighbor to the coming generations whose world will be transformed by today’s choices. Because of our generation’s actions, they will be forced to live in a hotter world, a world without thousands of species, a world with more people but diminished resources.
There are many ways that today’s decisions will have a direct impact on generations yet to come. Careless farming practices erode and poison precious topsoil, and reckless use of fresh water empties aquifers that will take thousands of years to recharge. Overfishing is threatening the bounty of the oceans, and the continuing use of fossil fuels drives global climate change.
Among our neighbors, those people are truly voiceless, because they don’t exist yet. They can’t stand in front of us to speak about their rights, their interests, and their needs. When we recognize our neighborly ties to the future, we will speak and act on their behalf.
3. Our neighbors include the rest of creation.
We must stretch, too, beyond our human neighbors. We are to be neighbor to all the variety of life with whom we share this planet.
Now, that’s a really hard notion for some people to grasp. Our culture, generally, thinks of the natural world only as things with monetary value, but not moral worth. We’re learning, though, how well and how lovingly those neighbors include us in their care. Bees pollinate many of the plants that supply our food. Wetlands purify our water. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Bacteria in our own digestive systems help our bodies stay healthy. We are blessed and nurtured by the actions of other species, just as they are touched for good or ill by our lives.
We are part of an intricate web of life, and we’re bound together in relationship with a multitude of creatures. We do well — both morally and as a matter of self-interest — to be just and caring in our treatment of our other-than-human neighbors.
A part of our human nature wants to contract the boundaries of neighborliness. We’re inclined to think locally, to focus on friends and family, to value the present moment more than the future. But when our churches teach and practice expansive neighborliness, we are called into a richer faithfulness. We discover joy when we live in right relationship with folk all around the world, with attention to future generations, and with mindfulness of the whole web of life.
Thanks to my friend the Rev. Peter Sawtell for this timely piece. Peter is the Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries, and author of the weekly commentary, Eco-Justice Notes.

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  1. Diana

    Deeply convicting and true. Sitting so strong in my spirit, and with strength that is literally hitting my heart like a hammer with its clarity and conveyance of Biblical truth!!!!

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Peter Sawtell always hits a homerun with his insights, clarity, and ability to read the Bible from the perspective of all of creation. Thanks for your comments.


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