Sunday, March 25, 2012

Rethink: Our Duty to Others

The problem with being a big Sherlock Holmes fan is that the stories no longer surprise you. You enjoy them, of course, with their clever plots and twists. You enjoy the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as the often vivid villains. But since you know the endings, all you can hope for is that people write new stories and get the flavor of the originals right while providing fresh surprises.

I recaptured the effect of Sherlock's amazing deductions recently during, of all things, an episode of Car Talk on NPR. I enjoy the two brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, for their humorous banter as well as their ability to accurately diagnose cars over the phone, often by their owners recreating the sounds of faulty engines and parts. But Ray did something that I found breathtaking recently. A young woman called with a real mystery. Recently her car alarm started going off at random intervals. The mystery was that car did not come with an alarm system, nor was one put on by her or the 2 previous owners, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law. When she took the car into her mechanic's place, sure enough, he found that an after-market alarm system had been added, though not with a handy "off" switch.

Upon hearing this, Ray asked, "Are you a teacher?" Obviously surprised and perplexed the woman said "Yes. I teach Middle School."

"Your students did this," Ray said, with all the confidence of the Great Detective.

Like Watson, I tried to reverse-engineer the solution: Why put a car alarm on a person's vehicle without telling them? As a prank. Who would do such a complicated but juvenile prank? Teenage boys. Where is it likely for a young married woman to regularly encounter teenage boys who would be motivated to pull such a prank? At a middle or high school. Ergo, the woman is probably a schoolteacher! Q.E.D. Like one of Sherlock's logical feats, when all the steps were laid out, the deduction seems obvious. But by leaping to the conclusion, the immediate effect of Ray's reasoning left one dazzled.

Jesus often made conclusions that astounded his audience. His insights were sharp and his logic was sound. But we have heard his stories so often that, like reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, we forget how revolutionary and surprising his thinking was. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he announced what many rabbis chose when asked similar questions: Deuteronomy 6:5--"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." But Jesus realized that many people simply stopped there. Their religion existed quite apart from their everyday life. People still think that if they just attend worship, pray and make a donation that will keep God happy and they can go about their business as usual. They forget that people are created in the image of God. God loves people. And so you have make it explicit that duty to God doesn't end at the temple gates or church door. Loving God of necessity means loving people. So, unbidden, Jesus throws in a second commandment that follows logically from the first: Leviticus 19:18--"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

When people say all religions are alike, what they really mean is their ethical teachings are the same. That's not exactly true but there is a huge overlap, especially when it comes to our duty to others. For instance, the Golden Rule exists in some form in almost every religion. Usually it is negative: Don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you. Jesus stated it positively, telling us to treat others as we would wish to be treated. But this second commandment raises the bar. It is not enough merely to act fairly towards others, now we are to strive to love them. The difference? I can treat my neighbor well and yet not have to spend much thought on him. Love involves thinking of the beloved. Your girlfriend sees something you'd like at the store and buys it for you. Your wife had a hard day at work and you offer to give her a back or foot rub. A child sees a flower while on a walk and plucks it for grandma. My neighbor doesn't expect me to give him back rubs and vice versa. Love entails thoughtfulness and consideration that goes beyond what you'd do for a mere acquaintance.

So the command to love your neighbor goes beyond what most religions require. It doesn't just mean "be fair" or even "be extra nice to others". It means "think about and act towards others in ways usually reserved for family and close friends." It means putting others' wellbeing first, which is what you do when you really love someone. And Jesus is putting this forward as the next logical step to the command to love God. As 1st John says, "Those who say 'I love God' and hate their siblings are liars, for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen cannot love God, whom they have not seen."

But the command to love our neighbor comes from the Old Testament and was well known back then. How did Jesus make us rethink loving others?

Let's go back to the Biblical idea that humanity is created in God's image. Genesis 1 makes it clear that this is referring to people, plural, to male and female. God, too, is using the plural in referring to himself: "Let us make humanity in our image…" The traditional Jewish interpretation of this was that God is talking to his heavenly court, the angels. But might there be a deeper meaning to this? Jesus says that whoever has seen him has seen God the Father. He goes on to say that he and the Father are one. He speaks of sending the Holy Spirit and in the next breath of he and his Father coming to live with believers. Yet he speaks of one God.

The doctrine of the Trinity was not fully articulated in the New Testament but there are hints that the oneness of God is not simply arithmetic. Once again in 1st John we are told God is love. And suddenly the Triune God makes sense! God created humans in his image. Love is something that only really exists between 2 or more people. If God truly is love, there must be more than one person in the Godhead. So when Genesis speaks of the human couple becoming one, that is the image of God being reflected. We are most like God when we come together in love, when we are living as a community united by love.

That is why loving each other is the logical outcome of being created in God's image. Love is that image.

Which is why the next logical step is what Jesus told his disciples on the night before he died: "Love one another as I have loved you." Again he raises the bar. It is not enough to love others as we love ourselves. We are to love as Christ loves.

And the world needs us to love as he does, because human love is flawed. What we call love is often selfish. We can think that we love someone when really it's just because of what they give us, physically or emotionally. Human love can be superficial. We can think that we love someone when really it's just because of their beauty or sexy body or social standing. Human love can be an attempt to solve personal problems. We can think that we love people when really it's just because they admire us or enable us to continue self-destructive behavior or simply tolerate us when we can barely tolerate ourselves.

Christ's love, divine love, is different. It is what Paul described in 1st Corinthians 13: patient, kind, neither envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. Christ's love isn't insistent on its own way, and it refuses to be irritable or resentful. Divine love cannot rejoice in wrongdoing but only in the truth. The love of Christ can handle anything: its trust knows no bounds, its hope knows no end and its endurance knows no limits. God's love never gives up. That's hard to say about much of what passes for human love.

Another reason we need Christ's love is that not only is human love flawed but so are humans. It's hard enough sometimes to love family and friends when their flaws are foremost in our minds; how are we supposed to love other people with all their sins? Only through the love of Jesus. As Paul says in Romans, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." God loves us at our most unlovely. Only through the power of his Spirit, can we do the same to all we meet.

Christ's love led him to sacrifice himself for us. It led him to the cross. And following him means taking up our crosses. And by that, I don't mean putting up with the inevitable burdens of our own lives. Christ took on the burdens of others. He is our pattern. As Paul put it in Galatians, "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." If we are to love others as Christ loved us, that means doing it with a self-sacrificial love.

And that's frightening. Christ's sacrifice led to his death. He died to save us which means our lives belong to him. He told us that those who seek to save their lives will lose them but those who lose their life for the sake of him and the Gospel will save them. It reminds me of the joke, "Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die first."

Of course, going to the cross was not the only sacrifice Jesus made. In Philippians we are told that though Christ was divine he did not see his equality with God as something to cling to, but he emptied himself to take on the form of a slave and be born a human being. Though he was God, he laid aside his divine prerogatives to take on the life a servant, bound to do the will of God.

In the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ," while on the cross, Jesus supposedly sees what he gave up--being a normal person, with a normal life. And while the movie is fiction, I can't help but think that Jesus must have faced the temptation to just be a regular guy with a wife and family and a moderately successful business and no other demands on him. If that prospect ever did present itself to him, he thrust it aside as he did every other temptation. He chose to leave his home, to endure the mocking of his brothers, the rejection of his hometown, the opposition of the religious authorities and the ever-present threat that the Romans would crucify him as a disturber of the peace. He traveled constantly, mobbed by people who wanted healing and feeding, trying to open the truth to his very dense students, and avoiding verbal traps laid for him by enemies. At times he was so tired he could sleep through a storm at sea. Jesus' whole life was a sacrifice.

Here in America it is unlikely that any of us will ever have to die for our faith. It would be more helpful to the mission of Christ if more of us lived out our faith. That's what God asks of most of us. Again in Romans, Paul writes, "Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual act of worship." God calls most of us to live for him, to be the Body of Christ to others, the ongoing incarnation of his love for people.

But does that mean God wants us to burn ourselves out living for Christ? We'll talk about that Wednesday. But in the meantime, ask yourself this: if loving God necessarily means loving people, do I ever try to keep the two separate? If God is love, do I ever try to reflect that in the way I act towards others? If I am to love others as Christ does, do I ever try to push myself beyond my comfort zone in dealing with others? If am to love in a self-sacrificial way, what am I willing to give up in real terms of treasure, talent, time and social approval and what am I unwilling to sacrifice for him?


  1. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

    Have you read the book "Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies. This book is a must read for fans of the Granada adaptation and/or Jeremy Brett.


  2. I have. I'm a big fan of Brett's Holmes and am sorry he died so young. Aside from the last season or so, the series was one of the most faithful retellings in the long history of dramatizations. Holmes pops up a lot in my sermons, as well as other pop culture icons.