Loving the Life of Your Neighbour
Rev. Kurt Lantz Midweek Lent 2 TC 5; TD Citizens
March 03, 2021 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Our Catechism proves to be the Christian’s guide for life even in a time of pandemic, such as we are have right now. God’s Word, revealed to us in the Bible, is the only infallible source of wisdom, knowledge, and principle for life. The Catechism distills God’s Word for us down to rich articles of truth from God Himself and offers explanations for how they play out in our lives.
“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:3) means that we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. It is important to have that as our governing principle especially in times when there is a threat to our life, as is the case with the current pestilence. Our fear is rightly acknowledged to be a fear of God, who threatens to punish sin, and yet that fear drives us to love and trust in God alone who promises grace, mercy, and peace to the sinner through Jesus Christ our Lord. And so God’s Word directs us to pray confidently to Him even to “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) so that we might look to Him for all that is needed to support this body and life.
One of the major themes that our society has expounded as a result of the present contagion is to consider the people around us. God’s Word also underscores that we ought to consider not only our own needs, but the needs of others (Philippians 2:4). While the first three commandments deal with our love for God, the rest of them deal with our love for our neighbour. The Fifth Commandment comes to mind particularly as we search for how to understand our responsibilities to our neighbour in this time of viral outbreak.
The Fifth Commandment
You shall not murder.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbour in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.
Because the COVID-19 virus can be deadly and because it spreads from one person to another, our daily interactions with people have had to be adjusted, presuming that we don’t want to contribute to the spread of the virus in the community. Government agencies and Public Health officials first recommended keeping a physical distance of 2m from others. Next, mandates to wear facial coverings in public places were issued. Then, limitations on the number of people attending gatherings. Further, restricting any contact to people within your own household. And even isolating people in the home who exhibit any symptoms of viral infection, or if there is even a chance that they may have come into contact with someone who may have the virus.
There have been a whole host of reactions to these mandates. Some individuals don’t follow any of them. Some outright reject one or more, but will keep the rest. Some conscientiously attempt to follow them all at all times and in all places. And some even insist that people go above and beyond what has been mandated in order to impose their own individual ideas of what they and others should be doing.
How ought we to react to imposed mandates from those who are in authority over us, particularly governing authorities who are responsible for the welfare of the greater community? In addition to the Fifth Commandment reminding us that we should do nothing to hurt or harm our neighbour, our Catechism has a section called the Table of Duties, which pulls together Bible passages under the categories of our different vocations in life. One of those categories is that of Citizens. We heard one of the passages from Romans 13 earlier. Let us recite some of the others.
The Table of Duties of Citizens
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” Matthew 22:21
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.” Titus 3:1
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour.” 1 Timothy 2:1-3
It is obvious from God’s Word that we are to obey the civil authorities. They are charged with looking out for the good of the community. In their vocation they have a wider picture in mind than just our individual person. So, what you think works for you, might not be what they believe will work for the greater community. Or, what works for your household or your church may not be what those in office determine is good for everyone.
It would be wrong and sinful for us to disobey the ruling authorities just because what they mandate is not necessary in our individual context. Such disobedience may not put our own lives at risk, or even directly affect anyone else. However, we cannot see so widely to perceive how our disobedience might affect the wider community. We may not understand how what we do in our own little circle could possibly affect what happens to someone else in another part of the city, province, or nation.
It is not our vocation to have the wide of a picture in mind. That responsibility is given to the governing authorities and they are called by God to work for the protection, peace, and health of the wider community, well beyond our purview. It is our calling to obey the authorities and submit to them, curbing our freedoms for the sake of the common good, the good of the wider community.
This is extremely difficult for us. It is impossible for the old sinful man at work in us, who looks only inward to our own interests and not to the interests of others. That sinful nature works on all kinds of levels. It is most focused on us individually, wanting to have all the authority with the autonomy to decide what is right and wrong for itself. That is what Satan tempted Adam and Eve to do in the Garden of Eden, and he sorely tempts us with the same. He even convinces us that we are looking out for the needs of others when we decide to do, not just what works for us individually, but what works for our family. He has convinced us that it is okay to break the rules if we do it for someone else.
There have been obvious cases during this pandemic where the devil has led astray religious communities into rebellion and defiance. Surely the mandates of government officials cannot apply to the church, he protests. Certainly the community of Christians should be exempt. After all, they are preaching God’s Word. We fall for this kind of stuff, seeing it in others before seeing it in ourselves; and I don’t restrict that to mean in our own church, but in ourselves, in our reasons for being disobedient on any level.
It is not given to us to be responsible for the big picture. On the night when He was betrayed, knowing that He would be arrested, condemned, and crucified, Jesus got up from the table. The Lord of heaven and earth, who possesses all authority and has all the power to back it up, stripped down, got on his knees and began to wash the disciples’ feet (John 13). Peter protested, and Jesus answered, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).
There is a lot about our restricted life under the current pandemic that we do not understand now. Maybe we will understand afterward and maybe we won’t. But now, God’s Word directs us to submit to the governing authorities. Bold and brash Peter was able to submit to his Lord Jesus. We have a more difficult time because our government leaders and public health officials are not as wise and compassionate as Jesus. But they have their authority from Him. And perhaps, although we like to point out the faults of Peter throughout the Passion narrative, we are not as faithful as he, entrusting what he did not understand to the one who was given authority to deal with the cleanliness of his heart.
Jesus said to His disciples and He says to you, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). You ought to lay aside your rights and privileges and serve your neighbour in loving sacrifice. We have His example, and we also have His sacrifice. He didn’t just lay aside His garments to wash feet. He was forcibly stripped, His garments were gambled away, and He laid down His life on the cross to ransom us from the devil’s dominion.
He submitted to arrest by the temple guard. He submitted to trial before Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin. He submitted to examination under Pontius Pilate and King Herod. He submitted to the unjust condemnation of death by crucifixion, because through it all He was submitting to the will of His heavenly Father. Jesus Christ submitted to suffering and death in order that we might have forgiveness for not submitting, just so that we do not lose any convenience, comfort, or independence.
We have forgiveness and cleansing from these self-focused sins against our fellow man, in the purifying blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side, given so graciously to us in the Sacraments of the Church.
We could be completely Pharisaical about all of this, pointing out how we have kept every strict mandate at every turn. But this is easily done with no regard for our neighbour at all, just so that we could say we didn’t disobey. We could be completely seditious about it all and set aside any rule whatsoever when it comes to church or looking after our loved ones. I’m sure we are all in the middle somewhere. We just have to be faithful enough to confess it, rather than make our excuses.
There will be times when in order to properly care for our neighbours, our children, or our parents, that we will disregard some of the mandates that have been given by those in authority over us. There will be times when in order to do other things that the Lord has told us to do, we will not be doing what the governing bodies have told us to do. That is the reality of life in a world where the government and public health officials are not perfect, their knowledge is not perfect, and we are not perfect in our love for others or our obedience to those whom God has placed over us.
We could make our own justifications, or we could look to Jesus for our justification. We have forgiveness in He who was able to be perfectly submissive and perfectly loving. We are justified by His suffering, death, and resurrection, by His submission and His love, when we confess our sins. For God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our catechism teaches us to love our neighbour so as not to hurt or harm him in his body. Our catechism teaches us to obey the governing authorities. But throughout it all our catechism teaches us that we have forgiveness for all of our sins in the sacrifice of Jesus.