By This Shall Everyone Know

Dear Will:

There once was a man traveling the 15-mile stretch from Jerusalem to Jericho, heading to some other destination beyond. He brought along his donkey, perhaps because it was too far to walk, perhaps because he had too much to carry. Probably both. At some point, he came upon a stranger who had been beaten and bloodied by robbers—mercilessly left for dead on the side of the road. Filled with compassion, the traveler rushed to this stranger’s aid, taking oil and wine from his personal provisions to tend to his open wounds. Who knows which item of his own clothing the traveler was forced to tear up to fashion makeshift bandages?

Having slowed the bleeding and done the best he could with whatever other injuries he found, the traveler was forced to make a decision: What should he do with the suffering stranger? Surely he couldn’t leave him at the roadside. So he did the hard thing, lifting the bloodied man onto the back of the donkey and continuing his journey on foot—perhaps even carrying whatever supplies he had removed from the back of the beast in order to make room for the injured victim.

No doubt hours behind schedule, the traveler eventually stopped for the night at a roadside inn, where he paid for the stranger’s accommodations as well. The next morning, before continuing on his journey, he left additional money with the innkeeper along with these instructions: Please nurse this man back to health, and if your expenses exceed what I have paid you, I will reimburse you when I come back through this way.

Jesus taught this parable about the kindly Samaritan and the unfortunate Jew to help us understand what love looks like. If he told it today, it might be about a Muslim and an Evangelical Christian, a Democrat and a Republican, a Palestinian and an Israeli. It is a story about compassion, about bearing the burdens of others, about inconvenience, interruption, generosity. It illustrates what we mean by “the pure love of Christ.”

Elsewhere in scripture we find other detailed descriptions of what love looks like. On another occasion, Jesus said that love is feeding the hungry, giving shelter to strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, reaching out to those who are in prison. It’s treating the poor, the homeless, refugees and other victims of misfortune as you would treat Him—as if He and they were essentially the same person.

In Paul’s well-known letter to the Corinthians, he said love is patience, kindness, and celebrating the success of others. It’s humility and respect. It’s looking out for those around you and always giving them the benefit of the doubt. It’s celebrating truth. It’s tolerating, believing, and hoping, enduring whatever might come your way.

I’ve known many people who have shown me what this sort of love looks like. Through their selfless generosity of spirit, they have come to embody for me a real-life ideal of what I’m striving to become. I return to their stories again and again, perhaps as an antidote to the hate and unkindness that seems to dominate public discourse. Their examples lift and inspire me, urge me to try to be better myself.

In all of this I hear again an essential message and mandate directed to all of us who say that we are “trying to be like Jesus.” Because of love, you should be able to spot His true followers anywhere people gather: at the park, in the grocery store, at a school board meeting, at a football game—even on social media. In fact, you should not have to look very hard. Jesus gave us a simple way to spot the true believers: “By this shall all men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

Go, and do thou likewise.


Image: Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan (1875)

This Mile’s for You

Dear Will:

Say you were a Jew living in Palestine in the days of Cæsar Augustus. On any given day, you could just be going about your business—heading to the market to pick up some fish, let’s say—and a Roman soldier could interrupt you mid-errand to compel you to do his bidding instead. If he felt like it, Roman law permitted him to hand you his heavy gear and force you to carry it for him a mile up the road. Even if your hands were full and you were headed in the opposite direction, it didn’t matter. You’d have to put down your stuff, hoist his load, and trudge off with him. Here’s guessing you’d be late for dinner.

Any self-respecting person would be understandably resistant to such state-sanctioned overreach. Think of the indignity and the public humiliation of being turned into a beast of burden by some young conscript on a power trip. If it were me, I imagine I’d be thinking: “It’s clear who the ass is in this situation, and it’s not me. Who are you to tell me what to do? If I comply, I’ll be acquiescing to illegitimate authority. This is an assault on my freedom.” At which point I’d have been faced with two options: swallow my dignity and comply, or defy authority and suffer the consequences. Given what we know about Roman soldiers, I imagine that “the consequences” in this case would be, shall we say, unpleasant.

Jesus was around in those days, so I suppose it’s reasonable to wonder what He might have done if one day He caught the attention of some indolent legionary looking for someone to carry his gear. Given the scrutiny under which He often found Himself, we might understand if Jesus had avoided this highly-charged political question altogether. But that wasn’t really Jesus’s style, now was it? In His Gospel-defining Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave explicit instructions on this very question: “Whoever compels you to go one mile,” He said, “go with him two” (Matthew 5:41).

Wait, what? Why would Jesus expect His followers to comply with an unjust order from a gentile oppressor? More to the point, why would He then add indignity to indignity by suggesting that His true followers would willingly go an additional mile beyond that which was required by law?

For starters, I imagine there was the whole “don’t get yourself beat up or killed” thing. At its most basic level, Jesus must have known that refusing the soldier’s order would put an indignant Jew in great personal danger. Beyond that, He would have also known that defiance could put an entire community at risk. The Romans were not above overreacting in order to keep their subjects under control. More than anything, they wanted peace and civility, and they weren’t averse to violence in order to enforce it.

That makes sense, right? As a purely practical act of self-preservation, complying with the law was the logical choice. But if that explanation satisfies you, you haven’t really understood the teachings of Jesus.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus emphasized the importance of putting the needs of others above your own. Time and again He urged His disciples to sacrifice self-interest and convenience in order to show love and compassion to those nearby—even (especially?) those who might seem unworthy of kindness and service. Wasn’t that, in fact, the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who went well out of his way to carry and care for a fallen stranger? At the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the expectation that our day-to-day choices will be informed by a desire to do what’s best for other people, even if it results in a little personal hardship.

So why go that extra, unrequired mile? Because in doing so, you spare your neighbor that selfsame humiliation. Every mile you go, carrying that Roman burden, is one mile someone else doesn’t have to. What’s more, doing so transforms an hour of oppression into an act of selfless service. For a Christian, the labor and inconvenience cannot be required when the miles are freely given. It’s one of the ultimate lessons of the cross: When I willingly do good on behalf of someone else, I don’t relinquish my free will; I celebrate it.

So next time someone asks you to do something you don’t really want to do, something truly inconvenient that may feel like an assault on your liberty, consider the teachings of Jesus. Surely He would urge you to surrender your pride, put aside personal preference and freely do what’s best for others—especially when doing so would ultimately be in your best interests as well. To me it’s worth a shot . . . or two, depending on the brand.


Go, and Do Thou Likewise

SamaritanDear Will:

I’m not going to rehash the ugliness of what happened recently in Charlottesville except to say that it put on full display the worst side of humanity. It was all so awful, in fact, that the Church was moved to issue a public statement reiterating its stance on the issue of racial discrimination and hatred: “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.”

Weirdly, even that was not enough. Just two days later, the Church felt compelled to issue a further clarification inasmuch as some had twisted the previous release somehow to justify racial bigotry. The second statement was unequivocal: “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”

In the midst of all of this, I couldn’t help thinking that we would all be better off if more people simply went to Sunday School and paid attention. On the question of how to treat those with whom we may not agree—particularly those of a different ethnic or religious persuasion—Jesus taught very clearly:

     25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
     26 [Jesus] said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
     27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
     28 And [Jesus] said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
     29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
     30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
     31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
     32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
     33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was . . .

(I suppose I should pause here to point out that Samaritans were considered foreigners whose religious beliefs were abhorrent to the Jews.)

. . . and when [the Samaritan] saw him, he had compassion on him,
     34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
     35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
     36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
     37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

So on the question of how to treat those with different racial or ethnic or religious backgrounds, we might reasonably ask: “What would Jesus do?” And the answer is simple: He would be like the Samaritan.