Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Lk 10:36-37)
In his letter that was sent to multiple media outlets and the general public, the sheriff of Johnston County, North Carolina (a county I spent a chunk of my youth in) stated that churches were having their constitutional rights trampled and asked, “Why can’t churches be trusted to open and take precautions to protect their people’s health and well-being?” I feel that this statement deserves a rigorous discussion. However, what I will not be discussing at length is the statement with which he ended the letter: “Now, let’s have church!”
In all fairness, what has every faith leader been doing for months now? Have we all not been having church? Sure it’s a very different way of worshiping, but are not the members of the Church the body? For as Paul said, “all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12b). In short, we are having church! We are learning to livestream, using video chatting platforms, and giving sermons to cameras without a face in front of us. I gave both sermons of my preaching class this past Spring to my phone camera. It was far from my best work and incredibly haunting to look up and see nothing but a screen. We are having church every day, and the most amazing people are exemplifying the very hands and feet of Christ we are called to be!
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors. We are called to show them mercy. In this story from Luke, Jesus encounters a lawyer who asks of him, “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question in turn, “What is the greatest commandment?” This lawyer was obviously a scholar of his own religious laws and answered with the words of Deut. 6:5, the Shema. This then turns into the question of who is my neighbor and the parable of the Good Samaritan. What we notice at the end of the parable is the question Jesus poses, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man…?”
Jesus is again posing a moral question here. Does not Jesus pose this question of us now?
In seeking eternal life, are we not making choices about who we love as our neighbor? As we speak, we are redefining what it means to be a neighbor in this time and place. Right now, we must ask ourselves, which of us will be a neighbor to those hurting from this virus? The priest and Levite who walk past our neighbor and continue into a packed church, filled with those unknowingly spreading a deadly virus to entire communities? Or will we be channelling the spirit of the Samaritan, putting on a mask and staying home in order to save their life?
In Jewish literature and tradition, there is the notion of pikuah nefesh—”saving a life” in Hebrew—which states that saving the life of another overrides all other religious law. This is most clearly stated in the Talmud, the center of non-biblical Jewish theology, when Rav Yehuda notes that another famed Rabbi, Shmuel, said “…as it states: ‘You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them’ (Lev 18:5), and not that he should die by them. In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot [commandments]” (Yoma 85b:3). One cannot celebrate, grieve, take part in, or pray in the faith of the LORD God if one cannot live through it. Many detractors of our faith, and religion in general, will look upon those of us gathering and say: “See?! What hypocrites these people of faith are!” And if we continue to defy orders that keep those around us safe, they won’t be wrong.
I am reminded of the old story; you probably know it: A man is drowning out at sea after his boat has capsized. He prays to God for help. A man in a boat comes by and says, “Get in sir, I will save you!” The man says, “No! God will save me!” and the boat drives off. This happens yet again, but still the man says, “No! God will save me!” Finally when he drowns and dies, he meets God and asks God, “Why did you not try and save me!” God says, “Son, I did! I sent two boats!” We may look to God alone in times of trouble, but God sends us doctors, nurses, researchers, and so many more amazing people. So when we turn from them and their words, we turn away from God.
This is not a matter of political theory or Constitutional debate (which many, like the Sheriff, have used to claim their rights). This is a matter of Christian love. Could you, by law, go back to Church? Maybe. I’m not an expert on Gov. Cooper’s orders, nor the orders of any other governor—most are changing daily anyway. But what I do know is this: we must go and do like the Samaritan and show love by caring for those along our path. Augustine of Hippo, a 4th-5th century Church Father, says of loving our neighbor alongside the Greatest Commandment, “…but also toward our neighbor, for ‘thou shalt love,’ saith He, ‘thy neighbor as thyself;’and inasmuch, moreover, as the faith in question is less fruitful, if it does not comprehend a congregation and society of men, wherein brotherly charity may operate.” Let brotherly and sisterly charity drive us forward to keeping others safe and doing so in love.
To those who are working hard to keep Church running from afar, keep up the amazing work! This is difficult and can feel exhausting, but do not give up hope. Hold onto the notion that one day, we will come back together. Do not let go of that notion, dear siblings in faith, for we must all hold onto that.