A New Commandment
Part 1 of a conference address
Reading: Luke 10.25-37
The Pharisees were always trying to trap our Lord into saying something that they could use to discredit Him or even to justify having Him killed. When, in answer to their latest attempt, Jesus gave the commandment contained in our reading, He wasn't telling them something new. His intention was to remind them (and us) of God's instruction, given through Moses and recorded in Leviticus 19.18 that, "You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people; but you shall love your neighbour as yourself." And to remind us of how our attitude should be towards other people, especially towards those who, in our eyes, are not behaving in what we consider a sensible, respectable or responsible way.
It is so easy to judge people by appearances. We pigeonhole them, and condemn those who behave differently from the way we believe that they should - without trial, and without even trying to understand why they behave as they do. Unless someone, in a spirit of love, has the courage and the humility to communicate with them, to show them some understanding, they will forever remain condemned.
Our Lord gave some timely advice in Matthew 5.43, 44, part of the Sermon on the Mount, about how we should really behave, when we feel critical about someone. He said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Whatever you want people to do for you, do the same for them." It is our duty as Christians to bless those that curse us - to speak all the good we can to, and of, the ones who speak evil to, and of, us. To repay with love in thought, word, and deed, those who hate us, and show it both in our words and our deeds. Luke adds to this these words of Jesus recorded in chapter 6 verse 36, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." However, these commands are not always easy to obey and we all fail to follow them at times.
I want to tell you a story that illustrates what we've just been saying. A student, let's call him Jack, was enrolled at one of the big universities and when he arrived for the first session his hair looked as if he'd been 'dragged through a hedge backwards'. He was dressed in a tee shirt with holes in it, faded jeans and a rather scuffed looking pair of trainers. And during the entire four years that he was at the university his appearance hardly varied. His unusual behaviour, of course, caused various reactions. The lecturers tried to persuade him to dress more decently, while quite a lot of the students said that, either he must be a bit stupid to behave in such a way, or else he was so poor that he had no other clothes. The first of these accusations, however, was shown to be wrong by the first year's results when Jack came top in his year. In fact he finished university with First Class degrees in his chosen subjects.
During this first year Jack, who until now hadn't bothered very much about religion, was persuaded to go to the Christian fellowship at his college and he soon became a committed Christian. Now across the road from his college there was a church: it had a very conservative, intensely formal and extremely well dressed congregation. The minister of the church wanted to establish a ministry to the students but, because of the unswerving traditionalism of his flock, he was not quite sure how to persuade his rather unprogressive congregation to get involved. One Sunday, Jack decided to go to the morning service at this church. It had already started when 'our hero' arrived, dressed of course in his usual 'elegant' way. The church was full because it so happened that there was a special service of Thanksgiving that day, and so he started to move slowly down the aisle, looking for a place to sit. When he reached the front without finding even one seat that was empty he looked around as though he was unsure what he should do, then he shrugged his shoulders and squatted down on the carpet.
This unconventional behaviour would have been quite acceptable in a college fellowship meeting but for this very prim and proper congregation it was just too much. They had looked on in horror as this 'hippie'- or so they thought of him - had moved through their church. They had no understanding of, or sympathy with, the lax ways of the younger generation, and it was only their strict sense of propriety that had stopped some of them from forcibly ejecting him.
Then the minister stopped speaking. The congregation saw that he was looking up towards the back of the church. Turning their heads, they saw that one of the church deacons, a tall, very erect man of about eighty, immaculately dressed, with white hair and walking with the aid of a stick, was coming slowly down the aisle. A good thing too, you could almost hear them thinking, he's going to tell this repulsive individual to leave. However, when the deacon reached Jack, who by this time could sense the hostility of the congregation, he didn't say anything, but he dropped his stick to the floor, with a clatter. Then he showed the understanding, humility and generosity that the others should have shown. He smiled at Jack and, with considerable difficulty, lowered himself to the floor and squatted on the carpet beside him to worship with him in loving fellowship.
Just one man had the courage and the feeling of love for his neighbour that our Lord spoke about. In spite of the considerable difference in their ages, and the marked difference in their chosen modes of dress, he showed the understanding that was necessary in making the unusual young visitor feel welcome. He acted in the way that he would have liked someone to behave towards him in a difficult situation: whilst the attitude of the people in the congregation was similar to the one described and condemned by James in the second chapter of his letter. James said, if I may paraphrase his words, that "We should not practice our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ by showing partiality. If an unknown, but obviously influential, man came into the church every one would fawn over him and find him a special seat, but if a poor man came in they would just tell him to sit in a corner out of the way and ignore him."
Those of us who maintain that we have faith in Christ, says James, must not allow our behaviour towards others to be affected, one way or the other, by mere outward appearances. To do this would not be consistent with our claim that we are disciples of Jesus. Moreover, it would mean that we were making no genuine efforts to prepare ourselves for Christ's return.
To act in this way not only casts a question mark over our faith, it is failing to keep 'the Royal Law that we love our neighbour as ourselves' and it shows that we're being guided by the wrong motives. To behave in this way is certainly not the way of a Christian, and this isn't the way our Heavenly Father treats people. He will show the same love and generosity to everyone who comes to Him no matter what their station in life. He is no respecter of persons.
The apostle John goes even further. He sees things as either black or white and says that it's only by showing love to others that we can make any progress in our spiritual life. If we fail to show love to our neighbour we are in fact showing hatred to him and to hate means we are in the dark and that if we're in the dark we're enemies of Jesus and blind to the needs of anyone but ourselves.
Jesus came to demonstrate the love of His Father who, as John tells us in the third chapter of his gospel, loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son, so that all who would believe in His teachings - should have everlasting life. Our Lord always described God as a loving Father and illustrated that love by telling us the stories of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Son. The first - the Lost Coin - shows the love of God for those who have never known Him, but whom He still wants to bring into the circle of His love. And the second - the Lost Sheep - shows how He will keep searching until He finds the ones who through their own stupidity have lost their way and wandered away from His care. While the third - the Lost Son - shows that, even when someone deliberately and of their own free will chooses to leave the circle of God's love, when they do come to their senses and decide to return, our Heavenly Father will welcome them back with open arms. The point of each story was to show God's unconditional love.
The father, of the Prodigal, was always looking out to see if his wandering son would come home. Then when he saw him in the distance he was so happy that the lost one was coming back to him that he actually ran to meet him and lovingly wrapped the prodigal in his arms. Jesus wanted us to know that this is the way that God feels about us and behaves towards us, His wayward children and that He will not rest until all His children are safely back home and in a proper relationship with Him. We may have turned away from Him but when we do, He waits for us to realise that our Father's home is where we really want to be. He will not put any pressure on us but He waits for us to be fully convinced, in our own minds, that being home with Him is best. Then, when our face is turned homeward again, even though we may as yet be far away, our Father recognizes His own child in us. And as soon as He sees us returning He will hurry to meet us. He does not say that first the wanderer must come pleading to him and beg to be forgiven, then He will welcome him, but He Himself takes the first step towards him and gives forgiveness.
God has adopted us into His family as sons and co-heirs with Our Lord, and in the third chapter of his first letter, John says, "See what kind of love the Father has given us in letting us be called God's children. And that is what we are!" Jesus is telling us in the parable of the Prodigal Son, that because of His love for us, our heavenly Father wants ALL of us to be joined in loving friendship, not only with Him but also with one another. As our elder brother, our Lord wants us to experience the same true and intimate oneness with our Heavenly Father that He does - as the firstborn. In verse 14 of the fourth chapter of John's first letter, he repeats what he told us in his gospel, that the Father sent His Son into the world so that whoever will confess that Jesus is the Son of God, then God will dwell in him. Then in verse 16 he says; "We have come to know and believe in the love that God has for us. God is love, and the person who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." A few verses further on he says that, if we maintain that we love God yet indulge in jealousy, anger, revenge, or we show a selfish disposition and indifference towards our 'brother' ‑ and in its widest sense that means all those with whom we come into contact ‑ then we give the lie to our claim that we love Him.
Jesus, himself, was the kindest man that ever lived. He talked a great deal about the ordinary, every day practice of kindness. In fact to judge by what He said, He regarded kindness as the most important aspect of love and would rather see kindness in His followers, than any other trait of character.
In the fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, verse 32 we're told that we should, "Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another just as God has forgiven you in Christ." Paul is saying that because God has shown Himself kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving to us, it is only right and proper that we in turn should show the same feelings to our fellow man. After all, the one needing kindness from us has not failed us in the degree that we have fallen short in our loyalty to God. It cost God the death of His Son to forgive us but it costs us nothing to forgive our fellow man. Kindness is based on the loving heart of the giver and it's impossible to be truly kind unless one first of all truly loves: and it has been said that rivers of kindness flow from our Heavenly Father, the fountain of love. It has also been said that kindness lifts the spirit, and that compassion opens the heart. When we think about it, nothing encourages us more than when someone, in a spirit of love, shows us an act of kindness or understanding. Like forgiveness, kindness costs us nothing, but our Lord places so much emphasis on it that He identifies Himself with those who need it. We can see this in His parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in Matthew 25. There He lists many different things that were done for the king and then says in verse 40 that "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to Me." After listing the same things that were NOT done for the King, He says, in verse 45 that, "Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me."
This, taken in its broadest sense, rather than in the limited words of the story, means that Jesus is, in effect, saying that anything that we do for someone else we do for Him. On the other hand, when we fail to do something for someone who needs help, of any kind, we are failing our Lord. The implication seems to be that we can't have a proper relationship with Jesus, if at the same time we are indifferent to the needs and suffering of others around us. He also tells us that, however simple, or small, an act of kindness is, it won't go unnoticed or unrewarded by Him. Not, of course, that we show loving kindness for the reward we will receive; that is a contradiction in terms. True love is happily and generously giving any kind of help with no thought of getting anything in return. Its greatest form is doing a kindness to someone who will never find out who did it.
John in the third chapter of his first letter verses 17 and 18, says that if anyone who has some form of worldly goods does not use them to help when they see someone in need, then they do not have the love of God in their hearts. He goes on to say that it's time that we stopped talking about doing good deeds and instead, got on and did them. While John Wesley, in commenting on this passage, said that the very sight of want should knock at the door of our conscience and that if we ignore the want that we see, then we are not showing love towards our neighbour. James in the second chapter of his letter verses 15 and 16 asks us, "If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and if one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, but you do not give them those things which are needful to the body, what good is it?"
These men are all telling us that fine words can never take the place of good deeds; and not all the Christian love in the world can take the place of a kindly action towards someone in need. And when that good deed is performed at the cost of some sort of self-denial or sacrifice we will be illustrating the principle that our Lord laid down in John 15.13 and which He demonstrated to the full, that, "No one has greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends"
Perhaps, to make this principle of self sacrifice a little clearer we should remember that Jesus said that we should, "Give to anyone who asks of you." At the time that He was speaking this meant giving alms to the poor and needy: and there are two points to consider here. First, if we apply His words to another of His sayings, that we should - as it is expressed today ‑ 'go the second mile', then we shouldn't wait to be asked. Secondly, alms doesn't necessarily just mean giving money: it can also mean the doing of some kindly act for someone. To do a kindness for someone involves giving of our selves, of our time, which can often be more valuable than money.
In Matthew 10.37-42 we are told that Jesus said something that at a first glance seems to contradict all His other teaching because He tells us that, "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." However, what we are really being told is we must show love both to our family and to others, but that this love must not take precedence over our love for, and our obedience to, Jesus. Then our Lord goes on to say; "And he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life shall lose it. And he who loses his life for my sake shall find it. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward. And he who receives a just one in the name of a just one will receive a just one's reward. And whoever shall give to one of these little ones a cup of cold water to drink, only in the name of a disciple, truly I say to you. He shall in no way lose his reward."
This does not mean that doing works can save us, because we can only be saved through the grace of God. What He is telling us, is that nothing we do, whether it's good or bad, escapes the notice of our heavenly Father. However, there are those who dispense what they call kindness very grudgingly, sometimes even with a lecture on how, if the one being helped had behaved in a different way, the help wouldn't have been necessary. And Luke tells us in chapter 6 verses 37 & 38 what our Lord said about this sort of behaviour, "Judge not, and you shall not he judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven. Give, and it shall be given to you, good measure pressed down and shaken together and running over, they shall give into your bosom. For with the same measure that you measure, it shall be measured to you again."
We ought to be very careful when we form opinions about others because we want our heavenly Father to make every allowance for our own behaviour. If we are of a giving and a forgiving nature, or we, in Christian love, develop such a nature, we shall ourselves reap the benefit by our spiritual progress. What is more, the Holy Spirit working in us will encourage us as we try to become more fruitful. A tree is known by its fruit: and if we are to be ready for our Lord's return we must be fruitful in every good word and work, and the word of Christ must be so grafted into our hearts that loving kindness becomes an automatic reaction.