Tag Archives: neighbour

Crowds

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
(Matthew 14:21 NRSV)

The story of the “feeding of the five thousand” must be one of the most famous of all the stories of Jesus. It is certainly referred to by all four gospel writers so it was clearly a significant event which people remembered of Jesus’ life.

At one level it points to the popularity of Jesus amongst the ordinary people of his day. After a while, wherever he went crowds began to gather, often in large numbers. They were drawn, not just by his words, but by his actions too.

This huge and miraculous catering event raises some questions including: Why were the people there? What is the significance of the miracle? What does it say about Jesus’ response to the people?

Though the gospel writers each use the story in slightly different ways, it is clear that people gathered around Jesus because they saw something special about him. Many will disagree but, for me, that something special was his miraculous power, especially his ability to heal the sick.

Many people came to Jesus for healing from dreadful diseases, and having been given their lives back they stopped to hear what he had to say. They learned about the Kingdom and what John’s Gospel calls “Life in all its fullness”.

In the astonishing story of the feeding of the five thousand (or was it ten thousand, or more?) we see Jesus once again providing for the physical needs of the people. In doing so he also provides for their spiritual needs, and teaches his disciples to do the same.

This was not cold charity, nor the means to get people to sit and listen to a sermon. Rather, this was Jesus caring holistically for everyone there. It is a sign of his deep love and compassion, of divine hospitality.

And although this is a heart-warming tale as we read it, this story also serves as a challenge to those of us who say we follow Jesus. The challenge is to get our priorities right. It brings us back, once again to the truth that love of neighbour is the beginning of Christian mission.

Jesus,
You met the needs of all who came to you.
Guide and strengthen me when I struggle to do the same.
Amen.

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Salty Goodness!

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.”
(Matthew 5:13 NRSV)

I had a friend who tended to have something of a standard response to those who irritated him. “That man is the salt of the earth” he would proclaim, before adding “and he doesn’t half rub it in your wounds!”

I have, today, read an article on the BBC website which speaks of the discomfort felt by atheists in some US communities.

I found the article to be full of sadness for a variety of reasons.

At one shockingly ironic level, you could take the word “atheist” in this article and replace it with the word “Christian” for many. There are places and occasions in my own country where it is not always wise to speak from an explicitly Christian perspective, and those who discover a faith can find themselves ridiculed by friends and even family. So it is sad that people of faith and atheists find themselves experiencing the same sense of dislocation from their peers or from their community for exactly the opposite reasons.

Regardless of what others may say or do, if Christians are so convinced of their rightness that people feel excluded or even persecuted, then we have failed and we should apologise.

God’s Kingdom is one of sacrificial love, and of justice. Any kingdom which seeks to gather one group together and excludes others, for no other reason than that they don’t share our world-view, is not a Kingdom I would wish to be a part of. It is the realm of the tyrant.

Jesus rebuked those who only cared for their own kind. He also reminded people of the commandment to love God and neighbour. He did not say “Love your neighbour if he believes in God.” He simply said, “Love your neighbour.”

The whole business of being “the salt of the earth” is that Christian lives should enhance the experience of those around them, not poison it. We must be mindful of history and, as frail human beings, seek to act out of love. That is especially true in our families, amongst our friends and in our wider communities.

Jesus,
In your love you have welcomed me into your Kingdom.
Help me to understand my call
to share that love with others,
not to prove my point
but in obedience to your gracious command.
Amen.

Enlightenment

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
(John 8:12 NRSV)

One of the periods of history which I find most fascinating is that few years spanning the second half of the eighteenth century. It was a period of exploration, intense scientific investigation and radical philosophical thinking.

Though not unique in history, the period of the late 18th century changed the way in which many people saw the world. It spawned many social movements, new discoveries, new ways of governing and even new nations. It was the age of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Voltaire’s Candide, Captain Cook’s Voyages, of Paine’s Rights of Man, and so much more.

It was also a time when many sought to break away from what they saw as the shackles of religion and the overbearing authority of the Church.

Ironically, given that so many at the time sought to marginalise religion, Jesus had come to bring a new enlightenment all those centuries before.

In some ways, Jesus did re-assert traditional values, such as our duty to God and our neighbours; but in other ways he spoke out vehemently against those ways of thinking and being which enslaved minds, souls and bodies.

Jesus did not decry the faith of his time but his constant theme was that those who really knew God, who had a relationship with God, would see that religion was not a substitute for, or an escape from, the cold reality of their daily lives. Neither was it a means of social control.

He demonstrated that to love God was to seek to ensure that God’s love was enacted in every aspect of life; and not just personally, but in community, too. It was not a call to fundamentalism (at least, not as we understand the word), but to liberation and enlightenment. The way to bring in God’s Kingdom is to simply live it from day to day.

Encumbered by our Sunday School image of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” we often fail to see the radical and deeply subversive nature of his life and his teaching.

To discover something of the real Jesus can be quite illuminating.

Jesus,
open my eyes to see your truth;
free my soul from its preconceptions and prejudice;
enlighten my reason with your words of love.
Amen

Stunted Growth

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
(John 8:10-11 NRSV)

There are those who would argue that the story of the Bible is the story of human sin, and what God decided to do about it. Hmmm. Well, maybe.

Whatever the truth of that, we certainly seem to have a fascination with the whole notion of sin. If that were not so then many books would never be published, movies and tv soaps would have no audiences, and very few newspapers would be sold.

But the nature of sin varies from one culture to another and within societies, as does the degree of tolerance or otherwise.

In the quotation above, the Gospel writer is recounting the well-known story of the woman “caught in adultery.” No one seems to be concerned about the fact that there must have been another person present. The mob wants to stone her for her sin, or condemn Jesus for his lax attitude to the law. His response is to invite the sinless person amongst them to begin the stoning. They get the message.

But what is sin? Well, it could be argued that sin is exemplified in the Ten Commandments and in all the laws given out in the first few books of the Bible. There are very many who would agree with that notion and a host of laws which have grown from it. So perhaps the nature of sin can be codified.

Except I don’t think it can; not in that way, at least.

There is a simpler way. If we are, indeed, children of God from birth to eternity, then surely God want’s the best for each of us. My sin, then, is anything in my life, over which I have control, which prevents me from growing into the kind of person I have the potential to be. The same is true for you. Growth may be thought of as physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual and in terms of social, economic and physical/mental well-being. Additionally, and potentially far more seriously, our sin is anything that we do that hinders the growth of another.

That is why Jesus summarised all the Commandments by saying “Love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.” If we can get that right, we might be less obsessed with sin.

Jesus,
your love conquers my sinfulness.
Teach me to live that love
in my daily life
and amongst those I meet.
Amen.

Treasure

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
(Luke 12:34 NRSV)

I am often wary when someone pipes up with the old adage, “Charity begins at home.” The phrase is often used as a conversation stopper, or as an excuse to stand back from our responsibility to our fellow human beings.

In fact, it often displays a thinly-veiled hard heartedness; a meanness of spirit.

Yes, charity should begin at home. Our nearest and dearest are God’s gifts to us and we have a primary responsibility to love them in practical and sacrificial ways. The original meaning of the word we know as “charity” is, quite simply, self-emptying sacrificial love. So charity should begin at home, but it shouldn’t end there.

In his teaching, Jesus never says that money in itself is a bad thing; it is, after all, simply a means of exchange. But money and power often go hand in hand. The more money we have, the greater our freedom to decide, and the greater our power. Those with little money often have little power and can find themselves at the mercy of those who have plenty of both.

So it is not money which Jesus criticises, but our attitudes towards money.

In fact, it’s not just money: wherever we focus our attention (whether it be money, status, celebrity, our jobs, our cars, our hobbies and interests, even the social circles we move in) there is always the danger that the “thing” will become our god.

If we sit lightly on our possessions; enjoying what we have, not worrying about that which we don’t have, and doing our best to share our good fortune, whilst seeking to empower others, then we begin to move towards Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbour.

If I am tuned in to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom, then my heart is less likely to be fixed on my needs and more likely to discover its treasure amongst God’s other children.

Jesus,
when I am worn down
by the cares of money,
or any one of a thousand distractions,
give me a heart for your Kingdom
and show me where my treasure really lies.
Amen.

You did it to Me

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
(Matthew 25:40 NRSV)

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
(James 2:17 NRSV)

Many years ago I was talking to a friend about my sadness at the sudden death of someone who had been my course tutor at a college I had attended. As I talked with my friend about this sad incident, about this good family man in his forties, he suddenly turned to me and said, “But was he saved?”

As you may imagine, that brought the conversation to something of an abrupt halt. I must admit that for a few fleeting moments the notion of my friend’s nose and my fist coming into brief contact with each other was quite appealing. However, wiser thoughts prevailed and I kept my own counsel.

There is a powerful movement in Christian thought which claims that belief is everything; that all you have to do is believe in Jesus and everything else will fall into place. The logical conclusion of this line of thought is that it doesn’t matter what happens to you in this life; so long as you believe then you are booked in for eternity.

I beg to differ. And so would millions of other Christians. And so would the Bible.

Jesus’ command in the New Testament is to love God, and to love our neighbour. The two are inextricably linked.

Our faith should shape our lives. Jesus emphasised this in many of his parables, including the one from which the quotation above is taken, (powerfully reinforced by the extract from the letter of James). It’s not a parable about who’s in and who’s out, but an explanation of what it means to love God and neighbour.

Discipleship is a life-long experience of learning and growing. Jesus’ point is that we should aspire to the place where acts of love for others happen without a second thought.

Our faith should shape our lives, and the consequence should be a quiet growing of the Kingdom of God, “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.

Jesus,
Deepen my faith and trust,
and shape my life
for the service of your Kingdom of love, justice and peace.
Amen.

Love Your Neighbour

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
(Luke 10:29 NRSV)

So begins the introduction to one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables: the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus had just informed the questioner that Love is the only real commandment it was necessary to obey: love for God, and love for neighbour.

Like many a religious person since, Jesus’ questioner thought that he had little difficulty in loving God. It was loving the neighbour which was the tricky part, and so he wanted to know just who would be encompassed by the call to neighbourly love.

In reply, Jesus tells a wonderful story in which two religious officials, of considerable standing in the community, ignore the plight of a man dying on the roadside. They believe their religious duties over-ride the need to help the man. To make matters worse, Jesus casts a despised foreigner – a Samaritan – as the saviour of the injured traveller. He not only provides emergency aid, but pays for his future care, too.

The parable is deliberately intended to make the listeners squirm.

My neighbour is anyone who may need my help, whether or not we are on good terms. To love my neighbour is to ask no questions regarding their need and to put myself out to the extent of the need, and more.

To love in this way is to show God’s love, God’s concern for that person.

The love of God, the love which Jesus lived and taught, is a self-emptying love which always puts the other person’s needs first regardless of who that person is.

It is the love expressed in the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” It is the love of God for his people.

Jesus,
Help me to live in love for God and his people,
and give me the strength
and courage to live beyond myself.
Amen

The World Turned Upside Down

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
(Matthew 5:2-9 NRSV)

There are those who have a mental picture of Jesus which depicts him as if he were some kind of Victorian philanthropist, who says “nice” things and only mixes in genteel company. They get a shock when they discover something of the real Jesus.

Certainly, Jesus was the living embodiment of God’s love, and he taught in ways which revealed God’s love, but he was also often deeply subversive in some of that teaching. The passage above is an example of that.

Jesus has gathered his disciples around him and he begins to teach them about the Kingdom he has come to establish, but he doesn’t start with kings and princes or others at the top of the social strata. He starts at the bottom, with those who are often ignored, or not valued, or abused.

He speaks of those who know their need of God, those who are burdened with grief, those who will not impose their will and who see the good in others; the powerless who want to see justice, those who will actively work for peace; those who are not duplicitous and scheming in their dealings with others.

In other words, he turns his back on the culture of “might is right” and the “winner takes all” mentality.

This is no revolutionary’s manifesto, but with these words Jesus announces the inauguration of a kingdom which has a two-line constitution. Whatever our station in life, whatever our role in community or society, Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love others as much as we love ourselves.

How would this “constitution” work out in our own time?

Jesus,
you turn our values upside down
to bring us to your kingdom.
Open my eyes to your truth
and my heart to your commandment of love.
Amen

Mrs Jones Dreaded to Think

This short story, though fictional, briefly touches on an incident which I encountered whilst I was training for the ministry, and which has remained with me ever since. I am the man with the Co-op bag.

Though it happened in a particular place and at a particular time, it could be a sad facet of urban life in any part of our land. It begs the question, “Who is my neighbour?”

It was raining. It had been raining for days and today looked like being no different. It was one of those dull, wet, cold, end-of-January days which reminded you that the expectations of last Christmas had once again been an illusion and that next Christmas was a very long way away.

Mrs Jones didn’t bother to look up at the sky as she left the church porch. She carefully put up her umbrella and set off down the path towards the street. She wasn’t as steady on her pins as she used to be and she carefully picked her way around the cracked paving stones which held large puddles of water. She noticed how the rain seemed to make the graffiti on the old gravestones stand out even more than usual.

‘Disgusting!’

Mrs Jones enjoyed going to the ten o’clock Communion Service on a Wednesday morning. It was a lovely service. Not many people went, but the vicar said that it was worth it even if only one person turned up. Mrs Jones knew everybody who went and felt comfortable there. Occasionally, though, some rough-looking types from the local hostel would come in. That always spoiled it for Mrs Jones.

‘I don’t know why you encourage them’ she had told the vicar, on several occasions. The previous vicar wouldn’t have allowed it, she felt sure. And if he had, her Frank would have sorted him out. Frank had been a Churchwarden, a pillar of the church, until he had died of a massive stroke, one rainy day just after Christmas, ten years ago.

Mrs Jones turned the corner into Trinity Road where she lived. The gutter at the edge of the road was blocked up and water was flowing over the pavement, forming a great muddy pool. The cause of the blockage appeared to be a dead bird lying on the edge of the grid and preventing the water from draining away. It looked like a pigeon, or it might have been one of those collared doves; but it had white feathers, or at least it used to have white feathers. Now, like everything else that day, it was a filthy grey.

‘Wish the Council would do something about these streets,’ thought Mrs Jones as she walked out into the road to circumnavigate the pool of water. If Frank had been alive he would have phoned up the Council and given them a piece of his mind. He was not afraid of doing that.

A dog barked in a garden, and for some reason her mind went back to the church service. Oh yes! She remembered now: the Bible reading. ‘It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,’ Jesus had said. ‘Even the dogs get to eat what the children leave,’ the woman had replied – or something like it. Funny reading. Strange.

‘Her next door’ had had a dog, briefly. Her husband had brought it home one day – that’s if he was her husband. Mrs Jones wasn’t sure.

When they’d first moved in, Mrs Jones had gone round just to say hello, but ‘her next door’ wouldn’t let her in. She’d been quite polite and everything but she stood on the doorstep and talked. Mrs Jones thought she knew why. She had just happened to glance over her shoulder and seen into the living room. She’d noticed that there was no carpet on the floor and the furniture was really . . . well, tatty.

Mrs Jones had a nice house, Very smart inside and not a speck on the windows. Not like ‘her next door’. Mind you, it was difficult to keep the windows clean with all this rain.

Mrs Jones kept herself to herself as far as ‘her next door’ was concerned. She would always be civil, but she didn’t believe in being in and out of each other’s kitchens. ‘Good fences make for good neighbours,’ Frank had always said.

‘Her next door’ was a bit of a funny woman anyway. Well, she wasn’t much more than a girl, really. She had told Mrs Jones that they had just got married when they moved in. But she already had two kids and was expecting another. It wasn’t decent!

And what about her husband? He had been at home a lot in the beginning. Mrs Jones thought he had probably been too idle to get a job. She hardly saw him these days though. He turned up once in a blue moon – and when he did, the rows and the shouting that went on! The babies would be crying and she would be shouting and screaming, and he would be ‘effing and blinding’ at the top of his voice. And then he’d go out and slam the door and you wouldn’t see him for weeks.

After one such occasion Mrs Jones had gone round next door the following day and complained about the noise. ‘Her next door’ came out looking like she’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. Her eyes were all red and her hair was a proper mess, and her hands were shaking! And she had a cough like she smoked sixty a day. Goodness only-knows what she’d been up to. Mrs Jones dreaded to think. And with kids in the house, too!

‘Her next door’ did say she was sorry about the noise and it wouldn’t happen again, but Mrs Jones wasn’t born yesterday. She’d heard it all before. Frank would have done more than complain about the noise if he’d been alive. He’d have got onto the Council and had them sorted out. He wouldn’t stand for any messing about.

All these comings and goings made Mrs Jones’ life a proper misery. She had enough troubles of her own, thank you very much, without having to worry about what ‘her next door’ was up to.

And to cap it all, a couple of nights ago she had been getting ready for bed when she had looked out of the window and seen two men going down ‘her next door’s’ path. One looked like he was carrying a Co-op bag full of groceries. What a time for men to go calling at a woman’s house when her husband wasn’t there! It’s not right. This neighbourhood is going to the dogs.

Mrs Jones reached the gate of her house in Trinity Road. As she turned to walk down the path to the front door, she thought she saw the face of a young woman through the dirty window of the house next door. Then the face disappeared.

‘Typical!’ thought Mrs Jones. ‘Nothing better to do with her time. That reminds me if this rain ever stops, I must wash my net curtains and hang them out to dry.’

Nigel Carter