Sunday, June 03, 2007

The maxim for eternal life.

What's the difference between a theorem and a maxim? In geometry a theorem is a rule that states the obvious in a logical way that helps you to discover the not so obvious. A maxim is similar but is usually used in connection with general truth or rules of conduct. Jesus posed problems that I think qualify as theorems, pointing out to us the not so obvious.

One day a question was put to Jesus. Luke 10:25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Is there a maxim for eternal life? A general principle or rule that if followed will give eternal life to the obedient? Jesus must have thought so, He referred the lawyer (an expert in Jewish Law) to the Torah. Luke 10:26 He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?"

Now here comes the maxim; Luke 10:27 And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." This is taken right out of Torah; chapter 19 of Leviticus and chapter 6 of Deuteronomy.

Next Jesus confirms the answer given by the lawyer. Luke 10:28 And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live." It should be obvious to anyone who says they love God that loving God and others is the maxim for life. But what about what is not so obvious. What about the practical application of this maxim? Are there loopholes?

Loving God I understand but loving others is more difficult. If a person is on the other side of the planet are they still my neighbor? What about all the hateful people I have encountered in this life? The lawyer had a similar question. Luke 10:29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" I suppose the question could be restated like this, “Jesus, could you please define for me the size of my neighborhood? I want to love my neighbor but I don't know how far to carry it.”

Jesus then teaches the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus is giving us His theorem on the matter. It should make the application of the maxim obvious. Luke 10:30 Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" Like a geometry theorem Jesus laid down a set of circumstances. One injured man, two kinds of reactions, and three different passersby, now solve; who acted neighborly?

Obviously the one who helped the injured man. Luke 10:37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise." We should also be able to see the not so obvious. While we are focused on the breadth of our neighborhood, who is my neighbor? We miss the “maxima” of the maxim, the greatest point is not who is my neighbor but rather what should I be doing for my neighbor. Three men passed by but only one had compassion. The command (maxim) was to love my neighbor as myself, not to wonder if we had a neighbor relationship or not.

The not so obvious is our inclination to justify ourselves (see Luke 10:29) for withholding from our neighbor the love and compassion we are commanded by the maxim to give them. Because I can distance myself from my neighbor by geography, ideology, economy, or culture I feel secure in my behavior or lack thereof towards them. Although I may tell myself that I live by the “golden rule” the reality is I am false if I am withholding compassion from my neighbor (my fellow humans on planet earth).

Lets take a moment and break down the golden rule. It is basically a restatement of the second half of the maxim given in Luke 10:27 and Leviticus 19:18 (see also Mathew 7:12). The common version goes something like this, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or the even more common humorous commentary version, “do unto others before they do unto you”. The emphasis is on doing something. Compassion is expressed through actions. The maxim for eternal life (Love God and love your neighbor as yourself) requires compassion toward my neighbor, if I am truly living by the golden rule I will be taking actions that express that.

We live in a big neighborhood with lots and lots of neighbors. So many ideas about the what ifs and the what about this or the what about that seek to refute the maxim for eternal life. Debates are held, seminars given, committees formed, and governments reinvented all with the promise of making a better world for everybody.

So how is Christianity any different? Well for starters the golden rule taught by Torah and by Jesus is one that must be embraced and acted on individually. I can't join a club, a government or a religion and say that my joining satisfies the maxim. My club or government can't love God or my neighbor for me I must do those things myself. But where will I get this compassion for my neighbors? The neighborhood is so big how can I really love everyone? True Christianity is an individual personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. God will hold communities accountable but ultimately He holds individuals accountable. Why? Because within the relationship between God and us is the power for us to have the compassion for our neighbors and to act towards them accordingly. 1John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. Here we find another maxim: loving one another is knowing God. Test it and see.

I once saw a children's book in the library called What if Everybody Did That? It was illustrated with pictures that showed the consequences of actions if everybody did them. I particularly remember the picture of the cat if everybody squeezed it. It was funny. The point of the book was to show small children what they should not do based on what if everybody did it. The message of Jesus is similar. What if everybody loved God? What if everybody loved their neighbor? The difference is the theorems of Jesus are giving us things to embrace; love God, love others, peace, joy. The things to avoid become obvious and we don't need theorems not to do them.

I'll leave you with this idea. What if we all started doing everything we do in such a way that it would help as many people as possible? How would things in our neighborhood be different?