September 4, 2011

Love Your Neighbour as Yourself

Passage: Romans 13:9

The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

In the last decade the debt the average Canadian adult carries has doubled; in terms of personal income, for every dollar of spendable income this average Canadian adult owes $1.41.  In addition to personal debt every man, woman and child in Canada currently owes $16,953.41 for their share of Canada's public debt.  Spending beyond our means is not sustainable whether personally or nationally (or provincially).  One economist made the simple and profound observation, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  Continuously spending beyond our means cannot go on forever and typically does not end well.

Debt has gotten to be such a problem that it is threatening the existence and stability of western democracies; rioting in response to governments attempting to rein in spending in Greece, France, and Great Britain are revealing.  Mark Stein’s new book After America: Get Ready For Armageddon details the unsustainable debt accumulation by the American government.  Future generations aren’t big enough to afford the magnitude of such debt.  Stein observes “we’ve spent too much of tomorrow today—to the point where we’ve run out of tomorrow.”

“Owe no one anything”, writes the Apostle Paul.  (Paul’s letters should be compulsory reading for an economics degree). What great freedom and human well being is derived in following so simple an economic axiom. Stay out of debt; had western governments followed a pay-as-you-go fiscal stance economic stability would be vastly improved.  But do we have the political will to change our ways?

Paul links this economic principle to the Christian obligation to love one another—the one debt we are to hold or carry—“owe no one anything, except to love one another.”  When Paul says “one another” he has chiefly the household of faith in mind.  Still, the Christian obligation to love one another is an instance of the broader command to love the neighbour; Paul goes on to say that in loving another we fulfill the law.

But what has that to do with economic debt?   Debt has a way of dividing people, straining relationships, adding to worry.  Unpaid debt is rarely born alone—it drives up prices on goods and services for the paying customer as companies account for the losses of those who do not.  Too much of our debt is taken on out of covetousness; we want what the neighbour has and we want it now.  “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment”, said the Apostle.  “Owe no one anything” and “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment” are two sides of the same coin.

Taking on too much debt does not lead to love of neighbour; therefore is it not also an act of loving the neighbour, of loving one another, that we avoid such economic indebtedness.  Think about the damage done to family members by the gambling addiction of one member of that family.  Love does no wrong to the neighbour (or the family member).

1.  I am one of those who find it odd that we have a holiday called “labour” day; this feels like an oxymoron to me.  As is the case for many such celebrations, as time moves on we forget the origins of this day.  Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to December 1872 when a parade was staged in support of the Toronto Typographical Union's strike for a 58-hour work-week.  The labour movement achieved much for the welfare of workers.  It was in 1894 that the Canadian government made the September day an official holiday; a day to celebrate achievements of workers.

To say “I love labour day” in one thing; to say “I love work” is clearly not the same thing.  We have such a romanticized view of love that the notion that love and work could possibly be related ideas sounds odd.  Yes, we aspire to find work we say we love doing (usually meaning enjoy or inspiring), yet when it comes to love we have this notion that the sheer power of the emotional draw should carry us along.  Love, we think, should feel effortless; love never requires you to break a sweat; love never asks you to set the alarm clock to get going to do anything.

In the life of Jesus we see the love of God for us in action; even a cursory reading of the gospels tells us that love comes with great effort—blood, sweat, and tears are very much part of the fabric of love’s story (for God is love).

On the day when someone asked Jesus, “who is my neighbour”, Jesus, as is typical for him, does not answer the question because it isn’t the right question.  (As in the case for many of our questions the premise is flawed).  The questioner wanted a narrow definition of neighbour so he could figure the limits of his obligations to love.  Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan showing us the right question—in the people we meet how do I show myself to be a good neighbour.

Love is not a substance that exists out there somewhere and we somehow accumulate it to ourselves (look at all this love I’ve got).  Love is doing; love is in our actions towards others.  When parents work to provide for the wellbeing of their family this is love.  When we make the effort to promote good and joy in the life of our spouse (i.e., working on our relationship), this is love.  Love isn’t effortlessness; rather love inspires the greatest of effort.  On the cross of Jesus Christ the work of our salvation was secured; his love for us there is the measure of true love.

2. “Love is the fulfilling of the law”, wrote Paul.  If our romanticized idea of love makes notions of “work” and “love” feel far removed from each other it also does the same for the ideas of “law” and “love”.  This romanticized love is often thought to be so compelling in its power and so right in its outlook that the notion that it requires legislation is incompatible and restricting.  Love is thought to be so emotionally powerful it directs the will aright.  Yet Jesus said to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  Jesus could see among his disciples that some natural affection towards each other was insufficient—love for one another would not “naturally” arise.  In our gospel lesson (Matthew 18:15-20) we read where Jesus give a pattern for resolving wrongs Christians inflict on each other; the love one another anticipates conflict resolution.  (I remind you that in the command of God is the promise to fulfil in us what he commands of us).

Paul’s word that “love is the fulfilling of the law” and Jesus’ summary that all the law hangs on the two commands of love for God and neighbour is sometimes read to mean that love makes the law redundant; that love ends any need for the law. The guide for ethical behaviour was said to be summarized in the axiom of “doing the loving thing”; the watch word was “all you need in love”.  The question that belies such an approach is the meaning of love.

Paul wrote: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”  The 10 commandments are in two tablets.  The first prescribes relationship with God the second relationship with each other—love of God then love of neighbour.  Paul cites the commands of the second table and says they are summed up in the command to love your neighbour as yourself.  When he says “summed up” he does not mean “set aside”.

Another way of saying this is that the command, for example, “you shall not commit adultery” is contained or implied in command to love the neighbour. God’s commands “You shall not commit adultery” and “You shall not murder” are not devoid of God’s love but the very expression of it.  It is the very content of the meaning of love; it is the content of doing “no wrong to the neighbour”.  To refrain from adultery, murder, stealing, and coveting is to act out love for the neighbour.

The problem with uncoupling love God enjoins from the law he spoke is to end up with love that has very little content.  We are prone to rationalizing all kinds of things in the name of love—even adultery.  “Love does no wrong to a neighbour” and the law shows us the content for right and wrong.  The law of God shows the believer how to walk in company with Jesus.  Love is not the completion of the law (as if to render it obsolete) but the performance of the law.

3.  “Our fixation on youth culture has left the elderly out in the cold”; this was the title of an article that recently appeared in the UK Telegraph.  The author Alasdair Palmer was writing about the increasing number of elderly people in Britain—a recent statistic anticipated that by 2033 there would be 80,000 people 100 years of age and older, eight times as many as today.

Palmer described what he saw as societal preference for youth—taut, unwrinkled skin is aesthetically preferred. Younger people are employed ahead of older; the young considered faster and more adaptable.  He thought the very old should be looked after, but how?  He rejected the solution of tough-minded economists; euthanasia for the old and unproductive.  Palmer said that looking after the old depended “on our collective ability to value, and to want to care for, the very old. There’s no technology, and no law, that can make it happen. We will simply have to come to see value in lives which, at present, we find it only too easy to dismiss.”

What was so depressing in his article was that he could not offer a single compelling reason to do what he felt was the right thing—to care for the elderly.  He thought that the solution was to be found in “collective ability to value” but could not offer what that value might be; he thought we should value the elderly but offered no content for this value.  The reason we should love the elderly does not lie on the societies’ collective ability to assign value—it is because God loves every single one of these people.  It isn’t based on societal value but on the way the Lord Jesus values them in giving his life for elderly and young alike.

Palmer said no law could make it happen; I can think of a law that could make it happen—love your neighbour as yourself.  I think what he meant was that no law could compel people to value the elderly.  The gospel is simply good for the world; Christians living in obedience to Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit to love God and neighbour is the salt and light that can transform society.  I think that as the indirect light of the gospel has dimmed in western societies a great threat to anthropology is looming; is the human in the image of God and thus to be treated as such?  As that gospel light diminishes the vulnerable are at huge risk.

Samuel Rayburn served as a congressman is the US House of Representatives for almost forty-nine years (1913-1961); for seventeen years he served as the Speaker of the house.  After he received the news of a diagnosis of terminal cancer he shocked everyone when he announced he was going back to the small town he came from; Bonham, Texas.  People said to him: “The finest treatment facilities are in Washington, D.C. Why go back to that little town?” Rayburn replied, “Because in Bonham, Texas, they know if you’re sick, and they care when you die.”

Friends, care for the sick and dying is of eternal importance because it is to obey God’s command to love your neighbour as yourself.

4. John Wesley believed himself commissioned to remind Christians everywhere of God's insistence on holiness of heart and life.  This holiness of life was none other than the love of God and neighbour. The two loves were inextricably related in his proclamation of the gospel.  To understand Wesley we must understand his all-consuming preoccupation with GOD.  God is the environment of his people as surely as water is the environment of fish.

At the same time this preoccupation with God could never be merely a privatized inner religious experience.  On the contrary, it will always bear fruit in love of the neighbour.  See Wesley himself, eighty years old, trudging with numb feet through icy slush on four successive bitter winter mornings as he goes from house to house.  He is soliciting money for his beloved poor. He keeps begging until a "violent flux" (as he spoke of it in Eighteenth Century English; today we'd say, "uncontrollable diarrhoea") forces him to stop.  By now he has garnered 200 pounds.  Why does he freeze himself half to death, at age eighty, sick as well, on four successive winter mornings?  Because his heart's been broken at the predicament of people who are colder, hungrier, sicker than he is.

In 1789, aged eighty-six, he returned to Falmouth, Cornwall. The streets were lined. Forty years earlier mobs there had abused him. Now he was overwhelmed at the affection that greeted him. "High and low now lined the street,," he wrote, "from one end of the town to the other, out of stark love and kindness, gaping and staring as if the king were going by."  He was not the king. He was a very great ambassador.

The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to the neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.