“God Has Visited His People.”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7: 11-17
“When it pleased God who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace to reveal His son in me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not first consult with flesh and blood, neither did I go up to Jerusalem to consult those who were Apostles before me, but I went of into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.” — Galatians 2:15-17
We are given two passages for our instruction today, one is from the Gospel of Luke, 7:11-17 and another from Galatians 2:15-17. They have two very different contexts but bear one and the same message. What is that message? It is the one and only distinguishing facet of the moral teaching of Jesus and his real followers, that God loves all equally and is readily available to everyone, regardless of race, nation, gender, social status or style of life. The passages both tell us that in Jesus God transgresses the boundaries of tribalism, codified in custom and religion, and reaches out to embrace the outsiders, called in Hebrew the “goyim” and in English the “Gentiles.”
It is mistakenly thought that Christian faith is unique by its teaching of love alone, but this cannot be true because most if not all the religions, great and small, teach love as a cardinal virtue. What sets the faith of Jesus apart is that this love is not love of ones tribal relatives and religious confreres alone. Christian faith teaches the believer to love everyone equally and indiscriminately, as God loves. This moral teaching is, in turn, not unique by itself alone. For example, in the historical context of the New Testament, Stoic philosophy taught the love of all because of the common humanity evinced by reason (Logos) in human beings. Of course, this coincidence cannot mean that the one teaching can be reduced to the other. Jesus and Zeno have different fundamental convictions that make the moral similarity more apparent than real. I mention this only to show that it is impossible to establish uniqueness empirically, and that arguments about which religion or philosophy occupies the pinnacle of the moral high ground are foolish.
For this reason we leave all comparisons behind and try yet once more to learn the moral truth of Jesus’ message, that love’s horizon includes everyone, even our enemies. Let me show you how this message arises from our two texts.
The story of the raising of the widow’s son in Nain echoes an incident in the life of Elijah the prophet (1 Kings 17:9) in which he raises from death the son of a Gentile woman. Luke uses that story of the great prophet serving the Gentile woman in 4:26, to make the point that God cares for the Gentiles as much as for the Jews. This claim so infuriated Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes that they tried to throw him off a nearby cliff. So the “great prophet” that has arisen now that God has “visited his people” is Jesus, the greater Elijah (7:16). Like Elijah he is compassionate to a wretched widow (and widows were totally bereft without their sons to give them status and succor). Furthermore Jesus touches the bier – a detail not required by the narrative, but important to Luke’s point that the divine compassion defies religious taboos to rectify and to save (touching things to do with the dead makes one ritually unclean). This is a story of God reaching out to the Gentiles.
The Pauline passage underlines this point. “…God revealed his Son in me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles (Gal1: 15 -16). He must take God’s truth beyond the boundaries of Mosaic Israel, like Elijah, who went to the widow of Zarephtah in Sidon (Luke 4:26; 1 Kings 17). There are several words in this autobiographical account of Paul’s conversion- an account much to be preferred to the novelistic accounts in Acts (9, 22, 26) – that place it in the category of the “prophet’s call”, words like “set apart” “called” and the idea of the specific purpose, to preach to the Gentiles. In ancient Israel prophets like Elijah were set apart, called and commissioned, and so it was with Paul.
I take it as agreed now that our Bible wants us to learn the indiscriminate, unconditional nature of love, and I want now to explore whether this idea of love can have any meaning in real life.
Freud said that such love is beyond our emotional means and, furthermore, is an insult to our inner circle, who have a prior claim on our love. We can easily imagine those who love humanity and misuse their family, but can we imagine a love of family that broadens its horizon until it encompasses the world? By faith we can begin to make love grow like that, but we will have to allow that in such a broadening the nature of love changes to fit the circumstances. This constant and variable changing is unimaginable to human beings, so that unless there is divine help nothing will come of it. Here is where we are forced to leave the field of morality, love as a duty and a command, and enter the field of faith.
We cannot imagine a universal love and therefore we cannot study to practice it; but we can believe and experience the living Jesus as the divine fountainhead of boundless compassion. The Apostle testifies to the reality of the living love of God when he says that God first revealed the divine Son in him and then sent him to preach to the Gentiles.
Nicholas Christoff, the NYT “bleeding heart” correspondent, has been writing recently of Catholic nuns and priests working in thankless Africa. There is not enough money in the world to pay someone to do what they do. Theirs is an otherworldly motivation, and without their mysterious compassion and groundless generosity the world would be a starkly more wretched and cynical space. Said Paul, “…when God revealed his Son in me, I was at last able to take him to the Gentiles.” First look for that revelation of Christ in you, that otherworldly motivation, and only then risk loving the world, otherwise the thankless world will break your heart.
Now the whole world is Gentile; there are only Gentiles, despite the pathetic, rearguard violence of religious superstition parading everywhere and in all religions. The truly Christian reality of boundless love – that there are only Gentiles and each is loved equally by God – is emerging as the only enduring moral and spiritual truth we know in this vale of tears. I pray that the Christian churches may discover this legacy soon, for as institutions they seem not even to have heard of it.