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A Common Word 3

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian

Sunday, 20th January 2008

In other versions of this story it is Jesus who gives the two commandments. Here it is Jesus who gives his approval to what the lawyer says. ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But that is not the end of the matter. The lawyer then comes back with a supplementary question. ‘Wanting to justify himself’, we are told,’ he asks, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Presumably, he wanted to show, by this sharp question, that his first question hadn’t been a silly one. How far should this ‘neighbour’ business go? So, Jesus tells him the story about the man who was on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by thieves, who tore off his clothes and beat him, leaving him half dead. It happened that a priest was going along the road. Probably because he thought the man was dead, and he didn’t want to be made unclean by touching a corpse, he passed by on the other side. So did a Levite, who then came by. But when a mixed-race Samaritan, who was a social outcast, came by, he came near enough to see that the man was alive. He saw that the man was badly wounded and was touched by the state he was in. He went up to him, poured oil and wine on his wounds to clean them, and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his donkey and took him to an inn. At the inn, he gave the innkeeper two coins, asking him to look after him, and promising that if there was anything more to pay he would do it on his return. ‘Now’, said Jesus,’ Which of the three men was the ‘neighbour’ to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ ‘The one who showed him mercy’, said the lawyer.’ ‘Then, go and do likewise’, said Jesus.

I have told this story because it is perhaps the place in the New Testament that makes clearest what it means to love our neighbour. We are to show love by helping the person in need. It doesn’t matter what barriers there are between the communities from which we come. If there is a need to be met, we are to respond generously. This is the way Jesus interprets the second great commandment which comes to us from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Last week, in response to A Common Word, I concentrated on what Jesus calls the ‘first and greatest’ commandment: that we are to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and, as it says here, with all our mind. God is one; in all things God must come first, and at the core of our lives must be an unqualified love for God. Now I come to the section headed ‘Love of the neighbour’. It is divided into two parts; ‘Love of the neighbour in Islam’ and ‘Love of the neighbour in the Bible’. Just as last week, I do not want to misrepresent A Common Word so I have to quote at some length. In the first part, it says,

There are numerous injunctions in Islam about the necessity and paramount importance of love for—and mercy towards—the neighbour. Love of the neighbour is an essential and integral part of faith in God and love of God because in Islam without love of the neighbour there is no true faith in God and no righteousness. The Prophet Muhammad said: “None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” And: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself.”

However, empathy and sympathy for the neighbour—and even formal prayers— are not enough. They must be accompanied by generosity and self-sacrifice. God says in the Holy Qur’an:

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the pious. (Al-Baqarah 2:177)

And also:

Ye will not attain unto righteousness until ye expend of that which ye love. And whatsoever ye expend, God is Aware thereof. (Aal ‘Imran, 3:92)

Without giving the neighbour what we ourselves love, we do not truly love God or the neighbour.

This is the entire text of what A Common Word’ says about Love of the Neighbour in Islam. What it says about Love of the Neighbour in the Bible is this:

We have already cited the words of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, about the paramount importance, second only to the love of God, of the love of the neighbour:

This is the first and greatest commandment. / And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ / On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:38-40)


And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)

It remains only to be noted that this commandment is also to be found in the Old Testament:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and not bear sin because of him. / You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

Thus the Second Commandment, like the First Commandment, demands generosity and self-sacrifice, and On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

This leaves me with questions for three reasons.

(i) The first is this. I am struck by how short this section is as compared with the section on Love of God. For a Christian it is really quite inadequate. There is a wealth of material in both the Old and New Testaments about love of one’s neighbour. Simply to quote Leviticus, ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ is to miss the force of what Jesus is saying in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is saying precisely that your neighbour may not be one of the ‘children of your people’, but you must love your neighbour just the same – and he tells an unforgettable story to make the point.

(ii) But the teaching of Jesus is still more challenging. In Mathew’s Gospel, Jesus affirms the teaching of the Law, just as A Common Word does, - but he goes beyond it. This affirmation of the Law – by going beyond it - is perhaps the most consistent theme of the Sermon of the Mount. Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ (Mt 5:43). (Actually, we haven’t heard it, because the teaching to ‘hate our enemies’ doesn’t come in the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them.) Jesus goes on, ‘But, I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”’. What I wonder is, is there is any teaching in the Qur’an which affirms in a similar way that we should love our enemies? A Common Word speaks about the need for peace between Muslims and Christians, and in this teaching we have the strongest possible basis for building peace and reconciliation wherever human beings, not just Muslims or Christians, have old enmities to heal. Can we say that this teaching about loving our enemies is ‘a common word’ between us?

(iii) I think it is a key point that, just as he dies, Jesus himself shows us how we should follow this teaching. Luke’s Gospel records that when Jesus was crucified, he said, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’ (Lk 23:34). Here, precisely, is Jesus praying for his enemies as he dies. And Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is recorded as dying in exactly the same spirit, when he prays, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60). Not a word about vengeance; only a prayer to God for forgiveness. Is this spirit of forgiveness what is meant in Islam by ‘loving one’s neighbour’?

As I have said for the last two weeks, I most sincerely welcome A Common Word. I believe it is a serious statement to Christian leaders made in peace and love by our Muslim neighbours, and that the best way to take it seriously and in a spirit of peace is to ask some of the questions which it raises for me as a Christian. The section on Love of Neighbour strikes me as the weakest in the letter. I am puzzled by that because for me love of neighbour is so central to the teaching of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, A Common Word says so little that it prompts me to ask of those who wrote it the question that was asked to Jesus - not as a test question, but because this may be one of the places where our dialogue can make real progress in mutual understanding: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ As Christians, we need to be reminded of the teaching of Jesus that love of neighbour is costly, self-sacrificial, forgiving love for everyone. But who, according to Islam, is my neighbour - and how in obedience to the One God can we together learn better to obey this second great command?

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