In my morning prayers, I recently read Galatians 5. You will recall that within these verses are Paul’s “works of the flesh” and “fruits of the Spirit” lists. I don’t know how many times I have read, taught or preached on this passage in my years of ministry. A lot, I know. This time it commanded a little more of my time.
The “lists” are preceded by statements about freedom. Verse 1 reminds us that in Christ we have been set free from the Law of Moses. That is a familiar theme in Paul’s writings.
In verses 13-14, Paul reminds us that with the freedom given to the followers of Jesus, being “untethered” from the trusted emotional and spiritual anchors in life, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Accompanying such freedom comes the natural tendency toward self-indulgence, putting the wants of ourselves above the needs of others. The list he generates about the “works of the flesh” is what one finds in the wake of living the self-indulgent life. The content of this list has too familiar a ring in our current cultural context.
To make sure we don’t miss the point, Paul returns to one of the two Great Commandments, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Sadly, the focus is always on “who is my neighbor?” not on the manifestations of love.
We are told in Luke 10:25-37 that Jesus was asked this question, by a lawyer, who “wanted to justify himself (Luke 10:29).” Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you stop reading at verse 29 you are left wondering what on the lawyer’s part needed to be to justified? Jesus’ answer suggests that the lawyer’s definition of “neighbor” was a far narrower one than Jesus could accept. The parable of the Good Samaritan suggests that, in Jesus mind, the term “neighbor” was all-inclusive.
For the self-indulgent and self-centered, this is a too broad a definition. So, for them, a way must be found to justify reducing the “neighbor-pool” Jesus commands us to love. For the self-indulgent and self-centered, more neighbors threaten the number of resources available to satisfy their wants. Less competition, not more, is their goal. But how do you square that with Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself? You engage in a few mental gymnastics, defining “neighbor” as those who “reflect me, and my values, etc.” The new teaching is co-opted, “to love neighbor (those who reflect me) as yourself.”
For some, this new neighborhood has a population of one. For others, it’s immediate family or those who share my intolerant views wrapped in my religion. If I proclaim my intolerance with enough gusto and drape it with familiar biblical phrases, I most assuredly will gain followers. There is no shortage of sheep seeking a shepherd, even if they are wolves in shepherds clothing. So, these new neighborhoods of intolerance grow. And, because they grow, culture assumes they must have a valid reason for their success and give credence to this message of intolerance as being “of Jesus”. Apparently, those who amplify such a distorted message (media, etc.) do not know better. That may be our fault.
Historical examples like Nazi Germany teach us that size, power and a propaganda machine do not equate to being right, do not equal truth. We would do well to remember that life lesson today.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13-14).
Paul (Saul at that time in his life) was a Jewish purist, a Pharisee, charged with rooting out the followers of Jesus and their attempt to subvert the Jewish faith. Then he met Jesus. The walls of intolerance came crashing down and the whole world became Paul’s neighborhood. Doing Jesus’ bidding, Paul calls us into this kind of neighborhood, empowered with this kind of freedom to love. Period. Any other qualifier is an act of self-indulgence and self-centeredness, a wall of intolerance, that Jesus came to bring down. All he asks in return is that we manifest that same unconditional love to all, in Jesus’ all-inclusive neighborhood.