Love Your Neighbor as Yourself (Part 1)

April 11, 1999 / Mark 9:38-41

Jesus was occasionally drawn into the religious controversies of his day. I suppose it would have been impossible for him to avoid them altogether — although he clearly had a nobler purpose for his ministry than to fight the "brotherhood battles" of his time. Thus he was baited with questions about the resurrection of the dead, divorce, and paying taxes to a corrupt government.

One day the question put to him took the following form: "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" (Mark 12:28b). Jewish teachers of the Law of Moses had counted a total of 613 commandments in the Torah, divided them into "heavy" and "light" as to their relative significance, and debated among themselves as to the most important of all these divine mandates.

This was Jesus’ answer to their question: "‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." The second is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself." There is no commandment greater than these’" (Mark 12:29-31).

While there is no doubt that Jesus had difficulty making himself understood on both these points because of the accretion of traditional teaching from the rabbis, it seems to me that he had the harder time with the second. No devout Jew questioned his obligation to love Yahweh. Indeed, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" was not a new commandment to Israel. These words come directly from the shema, Israel’s call to worship (Deut. 6:4ff).

But what is this business about one’s neighbors? Creative teachers of the Law knew that "Love your neighbor as yourself" was also in the Torah (Lev. 19:18), but they had given the term "neighbor" a very narrow definition. Thus they could enjoin love for one’s neighbor (i.e., a fellow-Jew as opposed to a Gentile, a family member as opposed to someone in the larger community, a powerful friend from whom a favor might be expected in return as opposed to some weak or poor man) and simultaneously overlook doing unkind or evil things to one’s fellows. "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy" is not found in Scripture, but it was found in the teaching of Jesus’ contemporaries (Matt. 5:43). The Parable of the Good Samaritan, you may remember, was given in response to the following situation: "[An expert in the Law of Moses] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’" (Luke 10:29).

We human beings have never done a very good job of loving one another. Whether Jews or Arabs, Iraqis or Americans, Native Americans or Europeans, whites or blacks — it has been too much for some of us to love people who are different from us. So we accept and approve the most ungodly of things done by those of our own race, gender, religion, or nationality. At the same time, we can be so prejudiced against those whose color, language, or faith is different from our own that we cannot see or affirm the good things in them.

The World’s Method: Suspicion, Hatred, Exclusion

Less than forty-eight hours ago, I returned to the United States from a part of the world where hatred for one’s neighbors is doing an ugly work. Oh, I was not in harm’s way personally — though I was as close to Kosovo one week ago today as I am to Memphis today. And the worst thing I "suffered" for being an American was to be treated rather rudely by some students in a business ethics course Russ Gough and I taught in Russia the week before.

In scenes cruelly reminiscent of grainy old film footage of European Jews fleeing the Nazis, the world has watched live color coverage in its living rooms of ethnic Albanians fleeing their homes. According to the United Nations Commission for Refugees, more than 430,000 refugees have left Kosovo since March 24. They have told stories and brought film footage of massacres and atrocities. There are still more than a million civilian hostages in Kosovo as potential victims for marauding Serbian troops.

For the sake of all that is either sane or holy, I see no place for the term "ethnic cleansing" in our vocabulary for what is happening in the Balkans. Call it "racial deportation" or "racial banishment." Call it "ethnic hatred" or "ethnic violation." Or, more simply still, call it "murder." But the euphemism "ethnic cleansing" serves almost to grace and dignify the atrocities being perpetrated by the followers of Slobodan Milosevic.

There are confirmed accounts of mass executions. Milosevic’s troops are killing fathers and older males in front of their families. They have burned entire families alive in their homes. Serbian troops pull women and girls from vehicles to rape them, while forcing their relatives to exit the country for Albania, Macedonia, or Montenegro without them. These atrocities are taking place as we speak. Yet no one should be surprised, for they have been going on for nearly a decade.

As far back as 1992, I was in Croatia to present a series of lectures on topics in medical ethics and to visit a church in Zagreb that was spearheading relief work among people who had been forced from their homes by the Serbians. My own naivete as a provincial American was shattered during that visit. While I had prepared manuscripts for my lectures to the Croatian Medical Association and the Genetics Society of Croatia, I was totally unprepared for the issues that surfaced in question-and-answer sessions that followed. There and in private conversations with scientists and physicians, anecdotal accounts of atrocities by Milosevic’s followers accumulated rapidly.

One physician told me about a Serbian paramilitary group called "Chetniks" and their terrifying violence against both property and persons. Another took me to a documentation site modeled on the famous Simon Wiesenthal Center where still photos, videos, and first-person reports of such events were being collected.

A surgeon who had returned to Zagreb from ten days of volunteer service at a field hospital told me on the evening of his return about Bosnian men who had been castrated by their Serbian captors. Some had also had their genitals either mutilated or cut off.

The same surgeon and a pediatrician told of a town being overrun, a group of women and young girls being rounded up, and all those females being herded to a local psychiatric hospital. They were kept there for several days while male inmates were permitted and/or forced to have sex with them repeatedly. Several of the women later committed suicide rather than return to their families.

An obstetrician related her personal experience with a fifteen-year-old refugee who had just arrived in Zagreb. The girl was pregnant by Serbian soldiers who had kept her and more than a dozen other teenaged girls imprisoned in a house-become-brothel until the fifth month of her pregnancy.

I confess to an initial sense of stunned disbelief at the things being related to me. Surely it was mere rumor and propaganda. Things like that don’t really happen in the world of my lifetime! Or perhaps my personal reluctance to believe the facts before me was the same as that of my parents’ generation to the stories of racial dispossession, ethnic violation, and murder of European Jews a half century ago.

Rumors? Propaganda? These evils — both in Croatia and Bosnia in the early ’90s and in Kosovo today — have long since been confirmed to news agencies and international welfare organizations.

Precisely what other European countries, the United Nations, NATO, or the United States can or ought to do about the decade of slaughter in what once was Yugoslavia and the evil man behind it is arguable. Whether the bombing campaign presently under way by NATO will succeed is yet to be seen. The possibility of putting ground forces into the region seems to be more likely with each passing day of late.

But the time for hand-wringing has passed. Something has to be done. Man’s hatred for his fellow man cannot be tolerated in a "civilized world" by people who sit on the sidelines with their hands folded. We like to distinguish ourselves from Stone Age savagery or ancient Babylonian cruelty in war or the religious-ethnic bloodbaths of the Middle Ages. But stand aside to allow human beings in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Yugoslavia to turn loose their hatred in the context of war and every imaginable outrage happens again!

In a televised interview with Elie Wiesel — a man who remembers another time of genocide all too well — I heard him say that he had spoken out against what was happening in Yugoslavia six years ago. He called it a "scandal of historic proportions" and allowed that "our humanity is at stake" in dealing with it. I thought he spoke most eloquently when he reminded those of us watching that the issue at stake is not border boundaries and control of cities. "Think of the victims!" he said.

I repeat: It is incredibly difficult to know what ought to be done in these situations. There are innocent people suffering in Belgrade because of the air raids that are designed to "degrade" Milosovic’s army. Christians today will gather to worship in Russia, Yugoslavia, and other places with strong anti-NATO, anti-American sentiment in their hearts. Do they simply not understand what Milosovic is doing? Are they victims of partial information or propaganda? Or are we the ones at fault for not doing something much earlier that could have avoided what is happening now?

The following quotation is attributed to Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

Last Sunday I preached for a church in Zagreb, Croatia, that has both Croat and Serb members. Even though one Serbian lady pleaded for us to pray for her parents and siblings who are still in Belgrade, everyone there seemed to be of one mind in support of NATO’s belated campaign to stop genocide. We must pray for this war to end and for peace with justice to be established. We must pray for those who are suffering as refugees. We must act to relieve their suffering in the special offering we will take later today.


Jesus came to teach us a new model for treating one another. He was determined to teach us that the Second Commandment is to be taken as seriously as the first. So he modeled loving our neighbors by the way he treated women and children, Samaritans and Gentiles, lepers and blind people, women taken in adultery and men caught juggling their account books.

For today, let me simply close by saying that Jesus calls his people to live by an ethic that leaves hatred behind. After all, Jesus himself was a victim of hatred. "If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason’" (John 15:24-25). And Paul would later remind Christians that hatred belongs only in their memories and never in their present lifestyle: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another" (Tit. 3:3).

Let’s end this lesson with a prayer for an end to the atrocities, murder, and violence in Europe. Pray for the refugees, the innocent civilians in Belgrade and Kosovo, and the children — especially the children. Pray for a Sovereign God to reverse the fortunes of evil men who perpetrate harm against others. Pray for the political leaders involved with the responsibility of making the decisions that can lead to peace. And, above all else, pray for the cessation of hatred, prejudice, and destructive passion that are released from Pandora’s Box in times such as these.


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