Love Your Neighbour

My old venerable professor, a man of genial disposition and Christian compassion, startled me with his directness. He was recounting a very large Christian gathering where the speaker, perhaps over-sentimentally, said to a crowd of thousands, “I love you all”. As one of the unseen listeners, my professor said he responded with a silent protest: “Liar! You don’t even know me.” When I heard that quip, I sat back in my seat, straightened up by my professor’s take on what seemed to be a normal way of talking. Perhaps the speaker did feel some sort of emotional connection to the crowd. How could my professor call him a liar? What do you think? A little harsh?

But my professor was calling for a more grounded, more honest view of love. He was calling for us to distinguish love from mere schmaltz (there’s a helpful word). Love, if it is love, requires connection, personal interaction, direct touch, practical action. Love is not sentimental at all. Love is not merely the feeling of connection, it is connection. It is not just a fleeting emotional blip but the choice to do good when there is a real person in front of you. And that is why we are so often confused about love in our present era. We are experts in feelings, but not so good at the practical and specific.

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamasov, a conversation recounts this very idea:

"I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said. “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole."

[Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamasov, transl. Peavear and Volokhonsky, p. 57]

In Jesus’ exchange with the Scripture scholar in Luke 10:25-37, it is not hard to imagine the scholar repeating what Dostoevsky wrote. But in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus pushes the idea down toward specifics. In Jesus’ view of the world, there is no neighbour in general, no abstract humanity to love. Maybe we should be more careful how we talk; perhaps it is only God who loves humanity, and only because he knows us all, is involved with us all, touches us all. What we can do is love the person we meet, the person we are brought face to face with in the course of our day. And this is what makes love what it is: its specificity, it concrete practicality, its human touch.

Listen to what John says in his first letter: If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. [1 John 4:20-21]

I encourage you to listen or re-listen to the last week’s podcast and reflect on the viewpoint of Jesus. I personally want to be more specific, and less abstract.

We conclude our launch series Pure this Sunday. Hope to see you at 9:29 or 11:11.

Bob Osborne