I have read a lot these last few weeks about the division and hatred that now characterize political debate in the United States. There appears to be no room left for simple disagreement. Sides have been chosen, battle lines have been drawn and enemies clearly identified. Winning is no longer enough, for many it seems that destruction of others is the goal. The questions arise, “Is there any hope for us? How can I make a difference?”
I stumbled across the answer a few weeks ago in my men’s Bible study group. We had just finished a several month’s long review of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ remarkable discourse on the nature of a godly life. To the Jewish people living under Roman rule, people looking to overthrow their oppressors and restore their freedom, Jesus taught sacrificial love for their enemies. He told people to bless those who persecuted them, to pray for those who would do them harm.
His words were challenging then and they are challenging now. Even more, they seem nice and sweet on the page but impractical in reality. There are some people who seem out of reach, some people with whom no peace seems possible. There are cultures too different, beliefs too contradictory, for common ground to be found.
While this is a natural assumption the gospel writer made it clear that Jesus did not intend his teaching to be merely theoretical. He demonstrated this immediately following his discourse. In two successive interactions with outcast and despised individuals he showed how it is we can go about breaking down barriers with those who are different from us.
The first encounter was with a leper. Lepers were social outcasts, banned from societal contact and interactions. Their disease was viewed as more than a contagious illness, it was a sign of condemnation and separation from God. When the man approached Jesus in search of healing Jesus did not scorn him or reject him (the standard responses of the day). He saw him as a man in need of physical and spiritual healing. Against all societal conventions and norms, Jesus reached out and touched the man, healing him.
The second encounter was with a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated empire. The centurion came to Jesus on behalf of a paralyzed servant. Jesus’ response to news of the Roman servant’s plight had to stun all those who heard it, “I will come.” He was willing to enter the home of someone considered by others to be the enemy, to go where no one else would go.
In each of these cases I believe Jesus was motivated by perception. Where others saw ethnicity and illness he saw men in need. He did not see a leper or a Roman he saw men created by God, in God’s image. He did not see them as outcasts or enemies but as children of God. It was not that the men were not different from Jesus, it was that the differences were not as important to Jesus as was their humanity.
A powerful example for all of us. Peace can only be found when people choose to focus on our common humanity, common desires to be loved, understood and known, and on the value that comes from being people created in the image of God. When we focus on anything else we lose sight of our shared condition and division is inevitable.