The Greatest Commandment
by Alek Davis
On June 7, 2013, an anonymous bidder paid $1,000,100 for a chance to have lunch with Warren Buffett at New York City’s Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse. The winning bid seemed like a disappointment this year, at least, compared to the last year’s $3.45 million and $2.63 million a year before. Congratulations to this year’s winner for getting a bargain (all money go to charity, by the way), but it’s still no pocket change, and I wonder what he — I think the winner is he — is expecting to get in return. He has been warned to not expect stock tips, so which topic is he planning to discuss with the most successful investor of the 20-th century? Does he need an advice about life? Politics? Something he wants to share? Or ask?
People don’t seem to mind spending money (often lots of money) for a chance to meet someone important. I wonder who would be the ultimate person that most people would pay most money to meet for lunch. From present or past. Would it be Gandhi? Buddah? Mohamed? Moses? Abraham? Lincoln? I bet for Christians, the ultimate person to meet would be Jesus. Having a steak with Jesus would be awesome! (Jesus likes steak, right?)
If you were to go for lunch with Jesus, what would you talk about? What would you ask?
I suspect many would ask what Jesus thinks about the controversial topics of the day. The ones he did not address in the Gospels. We seem to have passed race-based controversies, so don’t expect any questions about slavery or inter-racial dating. This would be so past century (well, unless you graduated from Bob Jones before year 2000). But what about homosexuals with their marriage? Jesus didn’t talk much about them when he was around last time. Why not? He didn’t have an opinion? He must have made up his mind by now. Abortion? Is the life of a fetus as important as the life of a born human? Old Testament suggests it’s not,1 but maybe Jesus thinks differently? What about euthanasia? Is it a deadly sin? Death penalty? Is it good? Does Jesus like guns? Which party does he support? Can the Palestinians have a state? Is Obama a Muslim?
Theological questions should also interest the most enlightened. Which denomination is best? Who got it right: Calvinists or Arminians? Does bread consumed during communion literally turns into Christ’s flesh? Can we drink wine? After communion? Or juice? At communion? Beer? Anytime? Can priests marry? Can we use contraception? If so, which one? Boxers or briefs?
I guess, some questions sound a bit silly, a few are tricky, but Jesus should not be put off by them. He has answered a lot of different questions before. Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath days (Matthew 12:10)? Can a man divorce his wife for any reason (Matthew 19:3)? Should we burn down a village (Luke 9:54)? Who will be the husband of the seven-time widow in the resurrection (Matthew 22:28)? Should we strike with our swords (Luke 22:49)? Shall we pay taxes (Mark 12:14)? Yep, the silly questions, the tricky and the duh ones, Jesus must have heard them all.
Now, speaking of serious questions addressed to Jesus in the Gospels, which one do you think is most important? The one that is personal, yet it appeals to everyone. If you were to single out a question, answering which would give you a sense of the Jesus’ teaching and his expectations from you, what would this question be? Think about it for a second…
You may come up with a different favorite, but to me the most important questions is quoted in Luke 10:25:
Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
Understanding what you need to do to inherit eternal life is kind of important, don’t you think? After all, that’s most likely why you became a Christian in the first place. That’s why you may want other people to be Christians, too.
A loaded question, but the answer seems to indicate that to inherit eternal life, you need to do just these two things (Luke 10:27-28):
(1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and
(2) Love your neighbor as yourself.
Okay, wait a minute, what about repentance, being born again, baptized by water, baptized by the Spirit, speaking in tongues, tithing, and everything else you have been told to do since you started attending church? Well, sure, Jesus has also left other commandments, but these two seem to be the most important ones. They even got their own name: The Great Commandment (or Greatest Commandment). It’s in Wikipedia.
According to the Gospel, the expert in the law, who brought this question to Jesus did not have a problem with the first part of the answer. Apparently, he knew what loving the Lord your God with all your soul, strength and mind meant. That’s too bad because for a non-expert, this may not be obvious.
What does it mean, to love God? Religious people claim that they love God all the time. In hymns, prayers, on TV. But is a public proclamation of loving God an indicator of true love? And what is that true love of God? Is it a feeling? An action? I guess, a missionary who chooses a life of service and dies in poverty or gets killed in the jungles of Amazon exhibits his love of God through his life, but what about a TV preacher or an apostle of prosperity who hangs out with celebrities and makes comfortable living selling sermons on DVDs? I suspect he also loves God in his own way. When God blesses you with multi-million-dollar homes and a private jet (or a diamond mine), what’s there not to love. But is this the same love? And is this the love of the same God?
And what about regular folks? How can you tell if an average Joe loves or does not love God enough to fulfill the Great Commandment?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Apostle John suggests that your love of God reflects your love of your brother (1 John 4:20). You cannot love one and hate the other. Which brings us to the second half of the Great Commandment:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
It looks like when it comes to loving humans, Jesus expanded the scope. We have more neighbors than brothers, but who exactly is your neighbor? That’s a kind of question worth asking Jesus at lunch, because not getting it right may lead to confusion that can affect your chances of inheriting eternal life.
Before we get to the neighbor part, I must notice that in the sermon on the mountain, Jesus recommends us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), so if we were to love brothers, neighbors, and enemies, who’s there to not love? Extraterrestrials?
Although, in my limited understanding, love of the enemies — and, by the way, we know who these people are — seems more like an advanced course that not everyone masters. Some do, and we all should try, so if you need an example, see the story of reverend Wade Watts and a (now former) Ku Klux Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary:
However, loving your enemy does not seem to be a requirement for inheriting eternal life. Loving your neighbor does. So who is your neighbor anyway?
To describe your neighbor, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. You must have heard it: a Jew travels on business, gets robbed and beaten and left to die on the side of a road, two religious figures pass by not doing a thing, then a stranger from Samaria picks him up, offers first aid, takes him to a hotel, and pays for his stay until recovery.
The part that confused me about this parable comes from the question that Jesus asks at the end of the story (Luke 10:36):
Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?
There is a perception that the robbed Jew in the parable represents your neighbor, meaning that a person in trouble is someone you must love as yourself. But this is not what Jesus implies. What Jesus suggests here is that your neighbor is someone who does good to you, so he’s the one to love. In the other words, love someone who treats your well.
But what kind of commandment is this, you may ask. Anyone can do that. How hard it is to love someone who shows you mercy?
It shouldn’t be hard unless this someone is a Samaritan and you are a Jew living in the first century A.D. Looking back from 2013, it may be hard to understand the relationship between the two groups, but it should be sufficient to say that their mutual hatred exceeded their hatred of the Roman occupiers. I will leave the explanation of the depth of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans to the Bible and Wikipedia, but to give you a sense of how the words of Jesus may have sounded to the people of his days, let me adapt it to today’s realities.
Here is a Parable of the Good “Samaritan”, 2013 Edition:
A man was traveling from Sacramento to San Francisco, when he was attacked by a gang. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead by the side of a highway.
A preacher happened to be driving down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by.
So too, a minister, when he drove to the place and saw him, passed by.
But a homosexual man, as he drove by, came where he was; and when he saw the man, he took pity on him.
He got out of his car, went to him and bandaged his wounds. Then he put the man in his car, brought him to a local hospital and stayed with him in the emergency room overnight. He paid cash for the medical services.
The next day he took out his credit card and left it with the hospital receptionist. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and charge my VISA for any extra expense you may have.’
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the gangsters?
Now, would you call this homosexual man a Good Gay and love him as you love yourself?
I know quite a few people who would not. For them, a Good Gay is an oxymoron. Gays by definition cannot be good. Just as Samaritans could not be good two thousand years ago.
How bad were Samaritans to the Jews? They were bad. So bad, that Jews couldn’t even talk about them. Mere term Samaritan was one of contempt on the lips of Jews.2
But these are totally different types of people, a good Christian may say in 2013: Samaritans were not sexual perverts abominated by God.
You know what? They were probably worse. Samaritans were spiritual perverts. They violated direct commandments that God had given to Israel. They mixed up with the gentiles. They built a false temple and desecrated the one in Jerusalem. They killed Jewish pilgrims. They used to worship idols, and there is nothing worse than God’s vengeance directed at idolaters.
Okay, a more enlightened Christian may respond: I love the sinner, but I hate the sin. This seems to be a common mantra of the Christian population that evolved past the Westboro Baptist Church period. And it’s a reasonable approach. In theory. But let me illustrate what it means in practice.
The following is a real story:
On July 5, 2007, Satender Singh, 22, was among a group of people drinking and dancing to Indian music by the lake Natomas near Sacramento, CA. He was the only one without a date and was seen hugging and dancing with other men. Apparently, this upset a group of Slavic Christian immigrants, including Andrey Vusik and Aleksandr Shevchenko, who started hurling explicit racial and homophobic slurs at Singh. After the daylong dispute, Slavic men called for reinforcement, and when their friends arrived, Vusik punched Singh, who fell backward and hit his head. He died four days later. Vusik fled the country.
You may be expecting me to point at Vusik and Shevchenko here, but I won’t. Even though they have committed this horrible crime, they are not the ones who horrify me. Let me finish the story.
When I was retelling this case to my family, we had a visitor: a 16-year-old girl, a pastor’s daughter, a sweetheart who was active in the youth ministry. Here is what she said when she heard the story:
Too bad they killed only one.
Now, that’s the attitude that horrifies me. This is the love the sinner, hate the sin as practiced and encouraged among mainstream Christian churches. That’s the spirit that enables vusiks and shevchenkos.
We may have a handful of those who will go as far as killing a gay, but we have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christians who think that it’s too bad that they kill only one. If you think I’m exaggerating, you must be attending a Unitarian Church.
I picked gays as an example because they offer a good illustration of the issue, but it could be a different group. I know a few Slavic Christians, who don’t like blacks. Some still don’t accept inter-racial marriage (can you name another group who still thinks it’s a problem?). Others do not like Asians. Or Arabs. Or Jews. Majority despises Democrats and liberals. The list can go on.
The problem with mainstream Christians is that we spend a lot of effort trying to determine who exactly is the neighbor worthy of our love, and we consistently get it wrong. We end up hating the people who do no harm to us and a few who actually mean us well. We often do not follow what Jesus told us and unknowingly subscribe to the same value system as fascists, neo-nazis, white supremacists, hard-core communist, and Islamic fundamentalists (that’s a company you find yourself in when it comes to treatment of gays, but again, I am not talking exclusively about gays here, there are a few others).
You see, Jesus did not imply that you must love a suicide bomber or a sexual predator. You do not have to love all gays, all Palestinians, all blacks or all liberals. There are a lot of bad people among them, just as there are a lot of bad people among heterosexuals, whites, or conservatives. You are not required to love them. But you should not hate your neighbor just because he wears a label that you don’t approve.
If you think that gays marching on the streets with bare bottoms or engaging in sexual acts in public places are reprehensible, that’s fine. It’s understandable and I’m with you on this. A lot of good gay people would agree with us. But you know what: shouldn’t you be equally upset about heterosexuals since many of them practice the very same things? Some of them can also be accused of being rapists, child molesters, engaged in prostitution, pornography, wife swapping, infidelity, sexual promiscuity, and similar sins. How come there is no Christian-sponsored campaign against heterosexuality as a result of these behaviors?
Are you upset about the things you see at some gay pride parades? What about the things you see at Brazilian carnivals? Not happy about gay festivities getting out of hand? But how do you like activities that take place every year on spring breaks? Can’t stand drag queen performances? What do you think of Victoria’s Secret’s fashion show? Or strip clubs? How come there is no initiative to outlaw Mardi Gras or close Las Vegas?
But enough about gays. What about Haitians? Are they our neighbors? Not according to Christians who believe the urban legend spread by Pat Robertson about a pact made by Haitians with the devil.3 Isn’t it a shame that when an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, many non-believers offered immediate help while some Christians occupied themselves with the dilemma whether it makes sense to help a country supposedly cursed by God.
I think I have an idea why I have been struggling with the parable of the Good Samaritan for so many years. I was trying to understand who my neighbor was, while the point Jesus was trying to make is that it’s not that important. Your neighbor can come from an unexpected place. The key is: be a good neighbor yourself. At least to those, who pose no threat to you.
Go and do. Assuming you want to inherit eternal life.
3 Pat Robertson’s “Pact with the Devil” allegation (article)