God’s Gift of Neighbours

Four Way Faith
Part Three – Out: God’s Gift of Neighbours

This post is part of a series introducing the concept of a Four Way Faith. A balanced and healthy life involved loving relationships in four directions; Up with God, In with Self, Out with Neighbours, and Down with Creation. Each has two elements – the gift of each relationship to us and our obligations to each relationship.

In the Monty Python film Life of Brian there is a scene in which the characters Reg and Stan are seated at a table addressing a group of activists with a plan to bring down the Roman Empire. In the heat of the address Reg asks “what have they [the Roman’s] ever given in return?” There follows a list including, the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, health, wine, baths and public order. Now, not everything that the Roman’s did was pleasant or helpful, this short scene demonstrates the two ways we look at others, either as potential friends or foes.

God is a communal God and we are made in God’s image as communal beings. In the story of creation God says “Let us make…” (Genesis 1:26) and reflects “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helper for him.” (Genesis 2:18). Who is the ‘us’ God refers to if not the trinitarian relationship of Father, Spirit and Son? The rest of scripture provides us with the story of God’s relationship with humankind and humankind’s relationship with ourselves. Relationships are so important that there are pages and pages of scripture (1 and 2 Chronicles) dedicated to listing names (pages we typically skip over because they are not very exciting to us, listing name after name after name). On one occasion I was reading through the Bible chronologically, after what felt like an age of just reading names (it was probably a few days) and at times the same list in more than one place, the author of the guide I was following commented about how boring it was. He added a note saying how significant it must have been for the names to be recorded and what it says about God’s care for individuals and families that these names are recorded and remembered to this day.

We are all different in so many ways, some are introverts who prefer and need their own space whilst others are extroverts preferring and needing to be with others. However much we feed off the energy of others or feel drained by too much time in the company of others we all need other people. We send people to prison and keep them isolated as a punishment, the worst level of punishment being solitary confinement. The season of lockdown and restrictions of movement and meeting because of covid-19 have given rise to loneliness and mental health conditions relating to isolation. Studies have taken place to explore the importance of touch, and those who live alone and therefore don’t receive a hug, a handshake, a hi-five or a comforting hand on a shoulder suffer because of the lack of human interaction.

Silhouette of father (black) with son (orange) hugging. Background is shattered glass.

We can probably each each testify to the importance of those we have in our lives who love us, care for us and whom we enjoy choosing to share life with. One of the most challenging parts of the gift of others is remembering that even those we don’t get along with easily or even don’t get along with at all are also made in the image of God and they too are gifts. There are examples throughout scripture of the ‘other’ or the ‘outsider’, the ones who don’t look, act or speak the same being the ones who become the very gift that is needed.

When Joseph (of technicolour coat fame) is sold by his brothers he is treated well by the Egyptian officer Potiphar and becomes the overseer of his house. Despite a betrayer of trust from Potiphar’s wife Joseph is remembered by others and ends up serving the Pharaoh who provides land and a home for the Israelites (Genesis 37-47). A new generation does not treat the Israelites well, but it should not be forgotten that Egypt was initial a place of refuge for the Israelites and then again for Jesus in his infant years. It is a foreigner, a prostitute by the name of Rahab who others protection to Israelite spies in Jericho (Joshua 2). The story of Ruth speaks of a newly widowed foreigner supporting her bereaved mother-in-law to return to her own people. She ultimately is welcomed, accepted and marries into this foreign family becoming the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:13-22).

Jesus challenges the perceived cultural social divisions of his day. He causes the people who question him to consider that a Samaritan (one who is considered in opposition and of incorrect belief) to be a neighbour, for in the parable it is the Samaritan who comes to the help of one who has been robbed (Luke 19:1-10). Rather than showing disdain for the ruling Roman’s who have control of Jerusalem and Israel, Jesus tells the people to pay their taxes (Luke 20:20-26), to go the extra mile in serving a Roman guard (Matthew 5:38-42) and heals the servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). Why? Because the Roman’s are not all evil, domineering conquerors but are people who are created in God’s image and had something to bring to society at large. It is the outsider, a known as ‘a sinner’ who cleans and anoints Jesus’ feet when the Pharisee’s and others fail to offer full hospitality (Luke 7:36-49), yet Jesus also chooses to eat and share with the Pharisee’s, they are as welcome in his life as the sinful woman is. It is a Samaritan (an outsider) who provides water to a thirsty Jesus on a long journey (John 4:1-10). Jesus also take the initiative and invites himself to the home of the tax collect Zacchaeus, others look on with disdain, but by spending time with this wealthy social outcast the life of Zacchaeus is transformed, his neighbours benefit and the gospel is spread (Luke 19:1-10).

Jesus’ message does not dismiss that some will treat us badly, clearly Jesus was treated appallingly as he was beat and hung on the cross to die. We are not called to exclude others but to recognise that they are a gift to us who may seem strange, different, unfamiliar or even difficult but who may well bring us closer to God. As it says in Hebrews 13:2 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Map of the World made up of orange blocks with a black bust (head and shoulders) in each - depicting the global community.

We probably like to think that we are welcoming and hospitable but I have no doubt that there will be others who find us to be exclusive, unwelcoming and even forbidding. The reciprocal constituents of our relationship are to recognise others are a gift to us and we have obligations to them (which is of course easier with those we like and know). Our obligations will be covered in the second part of our look at outward relationships, let us remember some of the gifts others are to us.

Health: In the aftermath of the war, the UK saw huge investment in public infrastructure. Bombed cities were rebuilt, transport systems expanded and new institutions, such as the NHS, had to be staffed. Some of the first to arrive in 1948 were a group of 500 or so Caribbean migrants, who arrived on former troopship the Empire Windrush. Consequently, they and the 300,000 West Indians who followed them over the next 20 years, were known as the Windrush generation. Alongside those from the Caribbean came some 300,000 people from India, 140,000 from Pakistan, and more than 170,000 from various parts of Africa. If you have visited a GP’s surgery, been treated in a hospital or cared for at home it is likely you have received the gift of immigration.

Food: From doner kebabs to chicken tikka masala, spaghetti bolognese to baguettes, piri piri to bagels, sweet and sour pork to pierogi, the food brought by migrants has been adopted and embraced in this country. If you enjoy a wide range of delicious foods (even some that you might consider 100% British) we have received them thanks to others and outsiders. The first recorded fish-and-chip shop was opened in London by a Jewish immigrant named Joseph Malin. Chicken Tikka Masala is, so they say, a dish which not only the most popular in Britain but specifically designed to cater for European tastes. For that we probably have to thank an Indian migrant, Sake Dean Mahomed, who came from Bengal to open the first recognisable Indian restaurant.

Business. There are many successful business owners and managers in British today who have arrived and settled here from other parts of the world. In 2014, it was found that 8.3 million people in Britain were employed in businesses started by immigrant-entrepreneurs. For example, a refugee from Belarus, named Michael Marks arrived in England in 1882 and began selling in Yorkshire, he eventually teamed up with Thomas Spencer and together they launched Marks and Spencer. We all benefit from the shops, banks, salons, factories, and wide range of industries started by immigrants.

Art and Design: Galleries and streets are filled with inspiring art work, including The Orbit (the big swirly sculpture at the Olympic Park) which is the work of Anish Kapoor, who arrived in 1973 from India. The 1959 design classic, the Mini was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, who was an asylum seeker. His family, Greek, fled Smyrna when Turks invaded this borderland in around 1920. He went on to create the Morris Minor, and the Austin-Morris 1100. So, if you enjoy art and design, if you use transport or gadgets around your home, you have benefitted from the gift of our diverse society.

The list could go on and one. I have had house repairs completed by English, Polish, Romanian, and Scottish people, my hair has been cut by people of Turkish, Pakistani and black heritage, I buy my milk, bread and chocolate treats from an Indian-British family. My children are taught by a global community, with teachers from Canada, the UK and elsewhere. The nurse who regularly provides me with a necessary injection is originally from Asia. I am blessed to hear the voices of a range of people, some whose culture are the same, similar or entirely different from my own, from people who are incredibly well educated to those who have no academic qualifications but whose knowledge and friendship is equally valuable. I hear the voices of those with disabilities, those who are from different generations, those who look and think differently to myself, those who are single as well as those who are married and those who are widowed or divorced. Each person I interact with is a gift, they bring something special into my life, they enable me to see something fresh about God and grow in my relationship with God, myself and others.

Group of six women with arms around shoulder. Stylised image in orange, grey, black and white. Background is shattered glass.

You might think I don’t need to say too much about how important family and friendship are. We can no doubt name the family and friends who mean so much too us and those who have done throughout our lives, some with us for a short time and others who are long standing loved ones. Jesus had a group of 12 disciples, they were his friends, they lived and shared life together. In addition to the 12 there were also others, women such as Mary and Martha who played a significant role in his life. Within the 12 were 3 who were especially close friends. One of these was Peter and we read that as they were preparing for what we know as ‘The Last Supper’ Jesus washed the disciples feet (John 13:1-17). This was an act of a servant, but initially Peter struggles to accept the humble gift of serve that Jesus offers. He doesn’t want to bother Jesus, he sees Jesus as one he should serve and not be served by. One ultimate act of friendship is to accept the help, support and hospitality that other offer. I know I feel uncomfortable at times accepting offers of help and yet I know that when I am able to support others it is a blessing to me (as well as hopefully to them). Peter learns that he must accept the service of Jesus. We must humble ourselves and not demand the service of others (Peter jumps from saying no to feet washing to requesting a full body wash, but this is not required). We should listen when the gift of service offered in love and friendship and learn to accept such gifts as we all benefit.

All are made in the image of God and all are a gift to us from God. Our attitude should be one of gratitude and welcome to the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19) and the enemy (Matthew 6:27). We must follow Jesus’ example with Zacchaeus to accept the hospitality of those who different from ourselves, who others look down upon and speak ill of, even those who cause harm to others. Through accepting the gift of others we break down barriers and our lives, others lives and the kingdom of God benefit. When new people move into the houses, streets and towns around us (even our churches) it can be tempting to complain about change, to reflect on the way things used to be, or the people we used to see. Our challenge as Jesus followers is to have the view of seeing the outsiders, the others, our neighbours, as gifts, welcoming and accepting the gift they are and the gifts they bring. Jesus accepts the hospitality of Zacchaeus’ (a tax collector), Pharisees, a so-called ‘sinful woman’, Mary and Martha, and so many other. Peter accepts the gift of service from Jesus and similarly we are to receive loving service from those who offer. We are called to accept the gift of others.

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