A New Challenge to Love?

April 7th, 2010

God helps those who help themselves.

I imagine most of us have heard this phrase before. Historians like to attribute this theology to Ben Franklin, but he was merely repeating and old and popular idea of God - one that continues to resonate with American culture to this day. Pollsters estimate that roughly75 percent of Americans believe this saying is found in the Bible. There is even a citation for it on the Web: “God helps those who help themselves” - Hezekiah 6:1.

The problem is that the book of Hezekiah doesn’t exist. But we can imagine why someone would make it up. The notion that God helps those who help themselves affirms the deeply American myth that individuals should get only what they deserve and that God blesses the successful and punishes failures.

But the God revealed in John’s gospel has different priorities. The story in John 20:19-31 opens not with strength but with weakness. The disciples are fearful and confused; they are unable to do anything except sit in a dark room and dwell on their despair.

And still, they are richly blessed. The doors are locked, but Christ enters. The room is dark, but Christ gives light. The disciples are sinners, but Christ gives them the power to absolve sin. The message of the true Gospel is that God’s blessing belongs to everyone; even to those who are unable to help themselves.

In the New Year message of the BBC following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said he used to think that the greatest command in the Bible was “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But then he realized this command appears in only one place in the Hebrew Bible. More significantly, he said, “In more than 30 places, it commands us to love the stranger.” This is the real challenge, because for the most part it is not too hard for us to love our neighbors, people who are similar to us. “What’s tough is to love the stranger,” said Sacks, the person who is not like us, who has a different skin color, or different faith, or different background, or different sexual orientation, or different language. And the list goes on. “That’s the real challenge. It was in ancient times. It still is today.”  

Jesus promises that when we welcome a stranger, we are really welcoming him (Matthew 25:35). That’s proof that the risen Christ is among us.

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