Here we are again faced with one of the major themes of the Scriptures … “loving our neighbour”. In verse 8, James refers to this as “the royal law”! So, this “loving of our neighbour” is like a ‘royal decree’ … something like the highest law that could exist. This is the preeminent “law” of the “royal” kingdom of God … the law that governs human relationships. Laws and decrees are usually more about actions … what can be seen and judged: so this ‘loving of neighbour’ is the very practical, ‘feet on the ground’, application of our love for God. We shall go on to see that any suggestion of loving God is questioned, if there is a lack of evidence of love for neighbour. We can say as much as we like about how much we love God, but without this love for neighbour, these would be merely words (and words that wouldn’t really count for much) – as Paul would say, just clanging symbols or noisy gongs!
We also see that it is “loving our neighbour” without prejudice that James is on about here. The application of the examples James gives may not be immediately clear to our situation. But we’ll dig, and see what there is to find, and let God’s Spirit work. Rich or poor serve as examples of other wide differences. In a world that tends to find ways to divide people (and thereby oppress certain groups), are we part of the problem or part of the solution? What do we think when Adam Goodes is booed? Do we just accept the labels that are put on people, or are we discerning and loving enough to step out of this mode? What about people being returned to countries where they likely face execution? Influential sections of the media, owned by vested interests, would like us to buy into a particular point of view. Is this who we follow, or do we follow Jesus?
If we say we follow Jesus, surely then we have to give preference to his view of things, no matter the cost. We have heard recently, that true blessing will follow the one who puts Jesus first. So we shall see that “loving our neighbour” is also the path to receiving mercy ourselves.
Major theme of Scripture
Way back in Leviticus 19:18 we read God’s Word to the people of Israel – You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. We immediately note here, that the opposite of loving neighbour is bearing a grudge or taking vengeance. We also would pause to wonder about this loving your neighbour … “as yourself”. Often the thinking has been about having a high enough view of ourselves and our value to God and applying this equally to others … and there is truth in this. Then there is thinking about wishing for others how we would like to be treated ourselves … and this is right and proper as well. We would not want to, say, be excluded, so we wouldn’t do that to others.
But there is more to it: “Loving your neighbour as yourself” basically suggests an equality whereby we should not and cannot exert ourselves to the detriment of others. We cannot let our ego and our desires hover above the needs of others. We are co-travellers with others in life, each placed to be supporters and encouragers of each other. So, we could understand “loving your neighbour as yourself” as … seeing ourselves in our neighbour. Whatever it takes!
The Old Testament takes this further – into love for strangers – as God loves those who are strangers to Him, we should also love strangers and provide for their needs (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 & in thirty-five other places in the OT).
Jesus was all over this teaching! When the smarties were trying to trap Jesus into some sort of controversy, and asked him what the ‘greatest commandment’ of God was – Jesus gave them a twofold response, which covered both where the heart was centred, and how that would be shown outwardly.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:34-40).
So the two go together. Also interesting … “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” – meaning whatever you have studied and learned from God’s Word (specifically, at the time, the Hebrew Scriptures), this must be interpreted in the light of this overarching demand to love God and love neighbour! So when we get confused about the meaning of certain Old Testament passages … as we often can – it was a very different world, culture and time, we could ask ourselves what that passage may be saying through the filter of loving God and neighbour (as yourself). In this way, for instance, we will be able to interpret all violence as anti-God and anti-neighbour, and far less than what is required of us.
James and Neighbourliness
James picked up this central teaching, and applied exactly this to what he had seen and heard about in the early church communities (that he was writing to). As we have been created as relational and social beings, how we interact with other people brings the most critical assessment of the integrity of our lives. James in effect says, ‘you say you love God – well proof it’! This is not just a negative assessment, for there are huge gains here – James concludes this passage with, “mercy triumphs over judgement”. Many of us have become great neighbour lovers. I have seen tremendous examples of sacrificial caring since we have been here in Bright. But the Scriptures always want to push us a little more, maybe for this Word to be implanted into those little areas where we need a quiet work of the Spirit.
James looks at ways where “neighbour love” has been compromised (in the church); seen as a flagrant contradiction to statements of belief in Jesus (verse 1). People couldn’t behave like this and really believe in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ, could they!?! The integrity of the Christian community was at stake. People playing favourites. This could be because people feel uncomfortable with people who are very different from themselves, or who present with certain challenging needs. Often lying deeper behind this are all sorts of self-protective mechanisms, a need for safety and control. But sometimes it is just selfishness: a desire for personal needs to be met, for the attention or the renown.
James asks in verse 4, “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts”. Judgements are being made on the basis of selfish ungodly motivations. We are not seeing people the way we should be; we are wrongly thinking that one person is more worthy of my interest than another person. This is so contrary to God’s way of thinking! We cannot pick and choose in “loving our neighbour” – this command applies to whoever crosses our path. You know that ‘love thy neighbour’ thing – I meant everybody!
In the case of the churches James addressed, it was a preference for the rich over the poor. This was common in the status-orientated culture of the time, where the poor were adversely judged and excluded – thought to have nothing to offer – it was as if they were dispensable; BUT THIS SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN THE CASE IN THE CHURCH (in the economy of the Kingdom of God … where the “royal law” operates)! How demoralising would this have been! The rich got the best seats; the poor got to stand at the back or sit on the floor. And this was simply based on appearances or economic status. Fortunately, the days of reserved pews for special donors, in more modern times, have seemingly gone.
James suggests the poor have been “dishonoured” (verse 6a); which means to be treated without respect. And besides, people who are poor, yet faithful believers, are likely to be able to show us much more about God than the rich ever will (as the rich are so often completely obsessed by their own importance). James expresses a very negative view of what the rich inevitably do (v.6b-7); and if this is the case why should they be preferred … it is ludicrous!
It is not necessarily those viewed most likely, who are going to do the most effective work for God’s Kingdom. Jesus actually highlighted the sacrifice of one poor woman whose monetary offering was (relatively speaking) small, but came from a heart that was true. Fair to say, that God works through those who, rich or poor, are humble, open, uncomplicated, sincere vessels.
One way to get on track with this, is to push this challenge to love all our neighbours to the limit; to build high levels of empathy for others … no matter who they are – imagining ourselves walking in someone else’s shoes. This can be a stretch, but we need to be stretched – that is what following Jesus is all about. In so doing, we will not be so misguided, as to try to choose between God’s commands in terms of what suits us or not. This is what James refers to in verses 10-11. As God’s law represents God’s character (or who God is), it is thus a unified whole; being selective is not really an option. You cannot separate love for God from love for neighbour!
So, we will speak and act according to our heart of wholistic and non-partial neighbour concern (as our logical and correct response to our love relationship with God). Again, we could better understand “loving your neighbour as yourself” as … seeing ourselves in our neighbour – now that’s ‘empathy’. Referring to “the law of liberty” (verse 12) harks back to chapter one (verse 25), and thus connects “neighbour love” back to the need to care for “orphans and widows” … or whoever the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable and defenceless might be for us in today’s world.
Are we selective who we befriend? Do we hold back on some while lavishing affection on others? Do we only offer friendship for what we may get in return? Do we avoid potentially costly friendships? Do we stick well within our comfort zones (exclusively within those natural connections)? Just as well Jesus didn’t stick in his comfort zone in heaven! Do we overemphasise looks, occupations, nationality, personality, and what other people think? If this was the case we could easily reject Jesus! The statement of a former Australian PM, that, “we will decide who comes into our country”, easily digs into our soul, and transfers into the more personal statement of: ‘we will decide who we let into our lives’! But this of course discounts who God might want to bring into our lives – for their good, for our good, for mutual good. And we might be holding out on them, and therefore on our own potential and well-being.
What about those who ‘the world’ calls our enemy? Well we know that Jesus told a story which suggested that the one we might think was least likely to help us became the one who behaved like a true neighbour. A Samaritan, who would have been thought of with disdain by most Jews, and hated by some, was the one who became the example of neighbourliness … a definition of “neighbour” that crossed ethnic, cultural, religious, political and social boundaries. We are to act like him!!
What about those who have hurt us?? We first learnt from Leviticus that bearing grudges and seeking vengeance is the opposite of “neighbour love”. We also know that bitterness will very quickly darken our own soul. I have learnt that so much negative behaviour that impacts on me from others has its origin in the negative experiences of those behaving this way. There is room for forgiveness! Empathy, or neighbour love, allows me to understand this, and forgive this; and thereby liberate myself. Having forgiven, neighbourliness also leads to offers of help. It should be natural that recipients of grace and mercy, will become bearers of grace and mercy.
How Do We Be a Good Neighbour??
1. An open attitude of welcome and hospitality. According to Philip Yancey, human beings instinctively seek community, a sense of being loved, and a sense that their lives matter to the world around us (Vanishing Grace, p.19). To engage with someone we don’t know yet, each Sunday, would be a good application of this Scripture. Jesus spent much of his time with those who are generally termed “sinners”, i.e. prostitutes, tax collectors (code for financial cheats and thieves); and Jesus not only offered them hospitality, but was more than happy to receive hospitality from them. Jesus accepted people as they are, knowing that baggage always lies behind sinful behaviour, and that there is always potential to unlock. Former prostitutes became examples of worship and dedicated followers; one tax cheat Matthew became a disciple, another tax cheat Zacchaeus became a benefactor to the poor. Sometimes, just like Jesus, we have to hunt for the treasure in others.
2. An advocate for others. Given we have Jesus, shouldn’t we be those (leaders) who dismantle discrimination!? Any church cannot be a place of grace, light and hope, while discrimination goes unchecked. Who else is best placed to remind the rich of their responsibility to the poor. This would be one of the reasons that members of the early church redistributed their possessions toward a more equal footing – they were making a statement against prevailing oppression (Acts 2/4). So we can be advocates to the powers that be … standing against policies that make life harder for the poor simply to make it easier for the rest. Christian leaders have been advocates in so many ways – e.g. they took a major role in the ending of institutionalised slavery in Britain. One could go on. Our friend Andy (with Jan) stands with the oppressed people of Burma (no matter what religious background they have).
We receive salvation through grace alone by having faith in Jesus … yes! Yet, James presents here another example of how there is a process in living out our salvation. This is called discipleship – following Jesus and learning on the journey. We see certain measures of our maturity right throughout James. And verses like verse 13 here are quite sobering. Salvation being taken for granted, is the reason why this letter was written. We so easily make judgements, and then act out of those judgements. It is the mercy we offer, that we will receive. Jesus himself said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy’ (Matthew 5:7). This is not just about spiritual forgiveness, but also about our acts of neighbourliness.
However, good news shines out over the last four words: “mercy triumphs over judgement” (v.13b). Mercy covers a multitude of sins. Those who find a way to express mercy (in various ways) have found a deep closeness with God, such that any concern about judgement is completely relieved. Let us conform, to no other than Jesus, who lives and breathes love for neighbour. Amen.