When Jesus of Nazareth boiled down the Jewish Law into two primary commandments—loving God being first and foremost and loving your neighbor as one would love his or herself being a connected second—He put all of His followers for ages to come into a pretty precarious situation.
Many Christians seek to follow the teachings of Christ step-by-step, word-by-word with mostly good intentions. Some are called “Red-Letter” Christians claiming to take seriously the recorded words of Christ from the Gospels that are printed in red ink in many English translations. Others have made heavy emphasis on what it means to be a “disciple” or learning-follower of the Christ. Well-known authors like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have called Christians to a more Christ-centered life that seeks to sincerely implement the teachings of Christ into everyday life.
But one must ask his or herself this simple question: Did Jesus want us to resume living by the letter of the law—be it a new law—or by the spirit of the law of what He taught? Did Jesus want everyone to be itinerate disciples? Are we each to give away our second coat, our second pair of shoes, and so forth and so on? Some may argue, “Yes”. But let an alterative be presented here.
In the context that Jesus preached and prophesied in—the context of a Jewish nation that was subject to the juggernaut Roman Empire—He called His followers to love God and love the neighbor by means of what we would now call Pacifism. Christ taught to turn the other cheek and when demanded by a Roman to carry a bag one mile, show grace by carrying it a second mile. As history played itself out it became evident that when the Jewish nation ignored the teachings of Jesus a price was to be paid. That price was the Jewish Wars in which the Romans smashed the Jewish people, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and took thousands of lives.
When Martin Luther King Jr. began protesting the lack of equality being shown to African Americans in the United States he implemented many of Jesus’ non-violence techniques. Unlike Jesus though, there was a verbal protest. Rather than carrying the bag a second mile there were times when the way to love ones neighbor was to gently defy that neighbor and tell them that the only option is for he/she to carry his/her own bag. Dr. King followed Jesus’ teachings by the spirit of what was taught, but not necessarily by the letter.
Some may object to that example and point out that there were too many similarities between the approaches of Dr. King to that of Jesus. Well, let us then look at a more drastic example: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler.
Bonhoeffer did not follow Jesus’ teaching of complete non-violence in his situation. But it could very well be said that Bonhoeffer did follow Jesus’ teaching to love the neighbor. Bonhoeffer, though he failed, understood his own discipleship to be played out by trying to take Hitler’s life because to ignore what was going on was to refuse to show love to his Jewish neighbor. Furthermore, it could even be said that Bonhoeffer showed love to those who were his enemies within the German nation by attempting to wreak havoc on the system by taking out the leader (and maybe even toward Hitler by stopping him from his own external and internal destruction).
It would be all too easy to say that true Christians follow the Sermon on the Mount to the tee. It would be all too easy to make a list of Jesus’ best and most challenging sayings, tape it to a wall, and try to check each and everyone off when possible. It is a whole different ball game to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in the ways of Christ in our situation in our context in our day and age.
Loving God and loving the neighbor are difficult commands. When we seek to follow, Christ calls to do these two things we may often find ourselves in a difficult dilemma where pat answers and Bible verses do not solve the problem. What we must determine to do is ask ourselves what does it really, really mean to love our neighbor in this or that situation and then to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in making the right decision.
Only the Spirit of the words of Christ can bring life at all times and in all places.