Who is my neighbour?

Through the news media and internet we receive amazing insights into events around the world. On-the-spot reports and photographs enable us to see the people and their situations closeup. Sometimes the newsreader gives a warning that some of the images may be distressing. This weekend I saw a photograph of Rohingya Muslims crossing the Naf river to escape from Myanmar into Bangladesh. About fifty desperate men, women and children were crowded on a raft made of plastic containers that looked as if it was almost sinking.

Other photographs showed Rohingya women and children with wounds and burns received when they were attacked by soldiers and their houses were set on fire. They had escaped, but husbands and brothers had been killed. It is estimated that there are 1 million Rohingya Muslims refugees in Bangladesh in need of food, shelter and medical care.

Recent media reports from Yemen also show a terrible humanitarian crisis. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis rebels has caused massive shortages of food and water. It is estimated that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. In both Myanmar and Yemen the conflict is caused by people who hate their fellow human beings.

An expert in the law once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered the man by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was a long standing bitter rift between Jews and Samaritans. They had nothing to do with each other. In the parable a Jewish man was attacked and robbed on a lonely road and was left half dead. Two Jewish religious leaders passed the man and did nothing to help him. Then a Samaritan saw the man and took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him. The next day he left the man in the care of the innkeeper and promised to pay whatever it cost.

Then Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” God commands us all to “love our neighbour as we love ourselves.” God expects us to love all people, even those who may be our natural enemies, and to show that love in a practical way.

Remembering Edith Cavell

On 12 October 1915 Edith Cavell stood before a German firing squad. Her “crime” was that she had sheltered British soldiers and helped them to escape to safety in neutral Holland. About 200 soldiers escaped in this way. Edith, and those with her, knew they could be shot for harbouring Allied soldiers. At the Red Cross Clinic in Brussels where she worked, Edith had impressed on the nurses that their first duty was to care for wounded soldiers irrespective of their nationality. German soldiers received the same level of care as Belgian.

Edith was the daughter of Frederick Cavell, who was the vicar of Swardeston Church in Norfolk. She trained as a nurse at the London Hospital. In 1907 she went to Brussels where she was put in charge of “L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomas”, a pioneer training school for lay nurses. She was on holiday in Norfolk when she heard that the Germans had invaded Belgium. Immediately she prepared to return to Belgium saying, “At a time like this I am more needed than ever,”

The evening before she died Stirling Gahan, a German Lutheran chaplain, visited Edith in St Gilles prison. He found her perfectly calm and resigned. Edith said, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I expected my sentence and believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

They observed the Lord’s Supper together and then the chaplain said the hymn “Abide with me.” Edith softly joined him in saying, “I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness; Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Edith was a Christian who loved and followed Jesus, her Saviour. The teaching of Jesus is radically different. He taught his disciples not only to love their family and friends, but also to love their enemies. As a nurse, Edith did that at great personal cost. The gracious and courageous life and death of Edith Cavell is a powerful example and challenge to us all to live “in view of God and eternity.”

Love your enemies

The life and teaching of Jesus Christ was radically different. He was not chiefly concerned about his own interests, but about the interests of others. He lived in a nation which was dominated by the Romans, who were cruel and oppressive to the nations they conquered. The people amongst whom Jesus lived hated the Romans. This was understandable because the Romans had occupied their land, robbed them of their freedom, and made them pay taxes.

Yet Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Today we hear many reports of violence and wicked acts done in the name of religion. Those who are not of the same religion are treated as enemies to be attacked and even killed. This is done in the name of righteousness and with the expectation that those who do it will receive an eternal reward. In the past wars were fought in the name of Christianity and empires were established by “Christian” nations. What happened was a contradiction of the teaching of Jesus.

The love Jesus taught is more than a kindly disposition, it is practical. He told a story about a Jewish man who was travelling on a lonely and dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beaten, robbed and left half dead. A priest came down the road and passed by without helping him. Then a Levite priest did the same. But a Samaritan man, whom the Jewish people would have despised, took pity on the man. He bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him and paid the bill. Jesus said the Samaritan had obeyed God’s command that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Then he said, “Go and do likewise.”

I remember studying this parable with some Iranian Christians. When they understood what Jesus was teaching they said, “This means we must love the Iraqis!” They were right. Jesus’ teaching is radically different. We, too, need to ask, “Who are my enemies?” and “How can I show love to them?”

Love your enemies

Some people try to justify their evil actions by quoting the principle “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This legal principle is known as “lex talionis”; the law of retaliation. The principle was given by God to Israel through Moses. It did not give people an excuse for vicious personal revenge, but limited the extent of retaliation. It established the principle of justice. The punishment must fit the crime. It did not authorise either excessive revenge or personal mutilation of the person who had committed the offence.

God gave Moses examples of its application. “If an owner hits a male or female slave in the eye and the eye is blinded, then the slave may go free because of the eye. And if an owner knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave, the slave should be released in payment for the tooth.” So the lex talionis provided protection for the weak and vulnerable, for women as well as men. When they were mistreated they were entitled to legal protection and compensation.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out much more radical principles. There is to be no retaliation and revenge in his Kingdom. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven.”

The teaching of Jesus is a challenge to us all. Retaliation and revenge, whether committed by individuals or governments, are not a sign of strength, but of weakness. The experience of God’s sheer love and grace in Jesus, of which none of us is worthy, creates the context in which loving our enemies becomes a possibility. I remember meeting with a group of Iranian Christians to study the parable of Jesus about the Good Samaritan. In the parable a Samaritan man saves the life of a wounded Jewish man, even though Jews and Samaritans were enemies. One of the Iranians said, “If we are to obey the teaching of Jesus in this parable then it means we must love Iraqi people!”