I was asked to write about love. It makes sense. If there were any month to discuss the concept of love, it would be February. And if there were any year to discuss the concept of love, it would be 2017. But this request hit me like a ton of bricks, and in a typical God-fashion, at a time I’ve had the most trouble with the concept. And in a predictable Jonah-fashion, I avoided this message as long as I could.
I don’t make this confession lightly. For those who know me, I have a knack of saying what I think quickly, passionately, and without much thought for those who may disagree. I get outraged a lot, and it often overwhelms my senses, floods my ears, and overtakes my mouth. When I get fired up, the whole concept of love eludes me. Like a resounding gong and clanging cymbal, I ring empty. I am anything but patient in these moments. I am proud, angry, unhopeful, and self-seeking. This past year, I have lived in a fired-up state, which makes writing this all the more difficult.
But it’s in the difficult we hear God speak and right now, the church desperately needs to hear his voice.
Our small community of believers may disagree a lot, but hopefully we can all embrace the unifying belief that God prioritizes love. The Greatest Command (to love God and love others) guides the narrative of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The Bible consistently describes God as loving. Verse after verse, book after book, this love is communicated through stories, covenants, relationships, miracles, songs, and prophecies.
This love is the heart of the Gospel. God so loved the world and sent his son. His son made this love the focus of his ministry, going so far as to eat with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes, telling stories about Samaritans and prodigal children and sheep. God’s son then chose death and resurrection as the denouement of his earthly demonstration of God’s unfathomable love. All this to say, if anyone knows love, it’s God.
It’s interesting to see how God chooses to define this for us. We grew up hearing about the Samaritan neighbor. It was practically the go-to flannelgraph in Sunday school. For me, the story of the “neighbor”—of loving him or her—was a fairly innocuous teaching. (Probably because I never met many Samaritans in my particular Church of Christ.) It never made that much of an impact. Though Jesus’s ministry revolved around this idea of loving your neighbor, the definition he provided me seemed…open to interpretation. (And while I realize this is lazy theology on my part, it appeared that the word “neighbor” meant no more to me than the word “Methuselah” or “Gilead.” It was an ambiguous command.) It wasn’t until I understood the actual conflict between the Jewish people and the Samaritans that the teaching of loving one’s neighbor started to resonate with me.
These were two groups of people divided by racial and ethnic barriers, who had entirely different cultures, whose acts against one another were often hostile and violent. Jews would burn Samaritans’ villages. Samaritans would desecrate Jewish sanctuaries and harass them on their travels. The Samaritans were often oppressed and marginalized, outcasts in their larger community. They were wholly untrusted and reviled among the Jewish people. They were seen as unclean, as sinners. To describe a Samaritan as “good” would be just as nonsensical as describing water as dry. Yet, Jesus endeavors to do just that. In his explanation of what makes a neighbor, he centers the story on a Samaritan who showed mercy to a Jewish man. In doing so, he takes a relationship formerly built on hostility and violence, and transforms it into a call to love.
If it were up to me to define my neighbor, I guarantee that I would choose the easiest of them to love. They’d fall in and out of neighbor status based upon their proximity to my life and the least challenge they presented to me. They’d look a lot like me, with maybe one or two differences that I could tolerate. I’d pat myself on the back for being so loving. I’d then go about my day, relatively unmolested and comfortable. I’d tell my family about my good deed, and believe that I acted as God expected. I loved my neighbor.
That should sound utterly ridiculous to us, because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know exactly how God defines “neighbor.” It is neither comfortable nor free from harassment. God’s definition of neighbor is radical. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus would say it’s the ones who we are most hostile to, the ones we can’t imagine crossing a road with, the ones who are entirely different than us. I know immediately who this group is for me and I would bet you know who they are for you. The problem is that when I start to understand the definition the way God intends, the innocuous becomes the threatening. It requires some major adjustment and major sacrifice. It requires me to walk with those I previously found hostile, violent, unclean, and sinners. It requires me to step outside myself, and, instead, love my neighbors as I would myself. This means I am no longer concerned for my comfort, my safety, my happiness, unless I’m concerned for my neighbor’s as well.
Look at this teaching. It’s revolutionary.
And it is greatly lacking in our church.
We tend towards a love that does not require this kind of sacrifice. This idea of crossing racial and ethnic lines and of tearing down barriers of culture and politics and religion seems foreign to us because we’ve been in a rut. We’ve traded our calling for comfort. We’ve played it safe. We’ve barricaded our sanctuaries instead of opening them. Our love comes with strings and “only ifs” and sanctions. It has become something we give out sparsely, to people who look like us, think like us, pray like us, read the Bible like us, vote like us, and live like us. We have a hard time identifying our Samaritan because it scares us.
“Who is my neighbor?”
Is it the Syrian refugee looking for a host family?
Is it the undocumented immigrant working down the street?
Is it the liberal, pro-choice protestor at city hall?
Is it the murderer on death row?
Is it the black man protesting police brutality?
Is it the transgender woman teaching your daughter’s second grade class?
Is it the gay family adopting a baby?
Is it the feminist marching in Washington?
Is it the gun advocate at the shooting range?
Is it the conservative woman homeschooling her children?
Is it the Muslim going to the mosque next door?
Is it the military member going to war?
God is love. He compels us to find our neighbor and figure out how to walk with them down the road, instead of waving them along on the other side. He requires us to love him with all our heart, to give ourselves up for others. God shows us the most excellent way, and it is up to us to take it.
That’s my prayer for our church. It’s my prayer for myself.
May we bask in the goodness of God’s love.
May we find our Samaritan and get to loving them.
Kaitlin Shetler currently services as the Director of the ACCESS Ability Program at Lipscomb University. She is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) and has over seven years experience working with at-risk populations, including survivors of domestic abuse, older adults, and the disabled. She lives in Hermitage, TN with her brilliant husband and sweet baby girl and attends Hermitage Church of Christ, a community that has welcomed her with open arms and little-to-no eye rolling. Her passion is working alongside people to better the Church and the world through advocacy, service, and dismantling oppressive systems.