How can we live with difference?

In his brief teaching in Matt 5.43–48, Jesus addresses one of the pressing questions of the world today. How do we live alongside those who are different from us? How do we relate to those who have a different language, different habits, different values—perhaps even a different language? The challenge of this question is the driving issue behind the resentment that immigration has stirred up, and appeared to be the major issue behind the vote for Britain to leave the EU. And all around the world today, differences lead to division, and on many occasions not just to a vote, but to conflict and bloodshed.

It is very striking here that, whereas elsewhere Jesus appears to contrast his teaching with something from the Old Testament, here he goes further. ‘Love your neighbour’ is indeed a command from Lev 19.17—but ‘hate your enemy’ certainly isn’t. Jesus says that ‘you have heard this’, but where have we heard it from? It is a natural human response to want to be with people who are similar to us, and so, quite rightly, immigrant communities often gather together. But when does our fondness for our own kind spill over into distastes and then dislike for people who are different? When does our gathering with those who are like-minded cross over into exclusion of those who are different? And when do both of these turn into hatred? This is the way that human sin twists and distorts a natural human tendency—and it is from our sinfulness that we hear it.

Jesus’ word to this situation has a double challenge—not just to relate to those who are unlike us, but to those who dislike us. And he invites us to step into three realities.

1 Be children of your heavenly father

Think of the different groups of people you know—the tall, the short, the bright, the less bright, those who support one football team or another, black and white, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or nones. (Where I am just now the groups might be Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Russian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, European, Canadian and American.) When the sun rose this morning, on which group did it shine most brightly? Of course, this is a ridiculous question! But on which group did the sun of our friendship shine most brightly? On which people did we offer most clearly the warmth of our warmth and kindness? Jesus suggests that this should also be nonsensical—if we are children of our heavenly father.

Did you notice in the passage that Jesus does not talk about ‘the sun rising’ but ‘his sun rising’? Jesus is hear pointing to God as the sovereign creator, who chooses whom he blesses in his creation—and the answer is all of humanity, because all of humanity is made in his image. We give most attention to our surface differences, but God gives most attention to our common humanity, made as we are in his image to share his sovereign stewardship over his creation.

Although most modern translations mention ‘being children’, Jesus actually says ‘be sons’. The reason is that sons take over their father’s business. We recently visited the famous souk in Marrakesh in Morocco. The souk is divided into areas for each trade or craft, so all the metalworkers are in one place, all the woodworkers in another, all the leatherworkers in a third—and so on. We watched woodworkers with great skill turn wood into chess pieces before our eyes—using their feet! But when I asked a man why he did this, he said ‘Because my father did before me!’ I asked a man who owned a shop that just sold teapots about his trade; he was the fourth generation of the shop passing down from father to son—and he hoped that, if his son did not go to university, he might take over the shop. Sons continue their father’s business—and we do the same every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Whether we are male or female, we all act as ‘sons’ in stepping into the family business, which is longing for God’s name to be honoured, for his kingdom to come and for his will to be done.

Someone once said that the kingdom of God is creation healed, and as we treat people the same way that God treats them, we bring healing to his broken creation.

2 Expect more and give more

The two sayings that follow have an identical and parallel structure.

If you love those who love you If you greet your own kind
what reward is there in that? what have you done more than others?
Even the tax collectors do that! Even the gentiles do that!

For Jesus and his listening, tax collectors were not just doing a job of the government, as most of us would think today. (If you work for the Inland Revenue, please don’t take it personally!) Tax collectors worked for the Romans, who were the occupying power depriving God’s people of the freedom that they longed for to worship God in the way they wished. And the franchises for tax collection were allotting by bidding, so those appointed would often extort more money than they were due. They were collaborators, traitors and swindlers—so not the most popular people! But, says Jesus, even they loved their own.

But Jesus says we should expect more—we should expect a greater reward from the way we live. In one sense, he is referring (as elsewhere) to the reward of pleasing God—but I think there is something more immediate than that. In Mark 10.17–31, Jesus has challenged the rich young man to expect more by selling his possessions and giving to the poor. The disciples then complain that they have already done this—they have left their homes and their livelihoods, their families and their security, to follow him.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10.29–30)

It is crystal clear from the context that Jesus is not preaching a prosperity gospel here. Rather, he is anticipating the life of his followers as they ‘hold all things in common’ (Acts 2.44), so that any was welcome into the home of any other. That is why hospitality was such a prized value in this community (Rom 12.13, 16.23, 1 Tim 5.10, Heb 13.2, 1 Peter 4.9, 3 John 8). The word literally means ‘love for the stranger’. As we discover the love of God for those who are very different from us, but whom God has united in faith, then we see creation healed.

But Jesus goes further. Greeting ‘our own kind’ translates Jesus’ phrase ‘your brothers’. This could refer to those who are actually members of our family—and in many cultures family ties are central to personal identity. But this more likely refers to ‘your fellow Jews’ (Paul uses kindred language in this way in Romans 16). In the early Christian community, this language becomes extended to refer to fellow followers of Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, both male and female. We are the new family of God, and so have a spiritual kindred relationship. And Jesus says that our love, kindness and welcome must extend beyond this group to show the distinctiveness of the love of God. It is when we love Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and ‘nones’ (who say they have no god but do in fact worship something) that people see something unusual, something more.

In Acts 2.45, the early Jesus community ‘gave to anyone who had need’—and not merely any within their own group who had need. No wonder they ‘enjoyed the favour of all the people’ (Acts 2.47). Here was a place where the love of God so filled them that it spilled over into the society around.

3. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect

Well, that is not much to ask! But we need to think carefully about this ‘perfection’. For many of us, the word ‘perfect’ conjures up an image of a precious china or glass item. If we touch it, we spoil it with our grubby fingerprints; if we drop it, it will smash into a thousand pieces. This kind of perfection is left well alone!

But God’s ‘perfection’ is quite different. It is a perfection that we see in Jesus—a perfection that got stuck in to the messiness of our world. It is a perfection that was hungry and thirsty, that got dirty and tired, that was stirred with compassion and frustrated by stubbornness, and in the end a perfection that allowed itself to be nailed to a bloody cross.

The word here actually means something much closer to wholeness, maturity, completion. It has become all that it was meant to be. And it is connected with the fundamental confession of the Old Testament (and still the central belief for Christians):

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut 6.4)

This does not simply mean that God is alone, or God is the only sovereign (though it does mean that). It also means that God has a oneness, a completeness and an integrity. As James puts it, ‘there is not shadow of turning in him’ (James 1.17). There is no contradiction in God; he does not treat one group of people in one way, and another group in another. He is not kind on Mondays, but a bit grumpy by the time Friday comes. And Jesus invites us to be the same. If you go up to a fruit tree, you will not find apples on one side and pears on the other; an apple tree produces apples on all of its branches, and if the Spirit of God is at work in our lives, people will see the same fruit in every part of us.

Now, you might be thinking ‘This is all rather demanding—how can I do all this?’ But Jesus is quite clear: God has already done it. This is the way he has treated us. Can anyone pray for those who are persecuting them? Jesus did just that when he prayed ‘Father, forgive them’. Can anyone care for their enemies as well as friends? That is what God has done for us. It was whilst we were sinners that Christ died for us (Rom 5.8), and when we were enemies of God that he reached out in reconciliation (Col 1.21). Jesus is hearing inviting us to participate in what God has already done—initiating us to step into the life of grace. As God has poured his love into our hearts by his Spirit (Rom 5.5) he now invites us to let that love flow to others.

(Notes from a sermon preached in Central Asia on 10th June 2018).


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23 thoughts on “How can we live with difference?

  1. Please, please, NOT “the Inland Revenue”!
    Those from both it and the former HM Customs & Excise who were merged in 2005 to form “Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs” still find it mortifying that even the Government who did it could never remember the name they themselves had created…

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful article. May I make a comment, though, on your assertion ‘that immigration … appeared to be the major issue behind the vote for Britain to leave the EU’. The evidence points to sovereignty being by far the major issue behind the vote to leave, and immigration after that. See this information from Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_the_vote_in_favour_of_Brexit

    I love my neighbours in Europe, but loving my neighbours closer to home means making the difficult decision to safeguard them from the dangers of an undemocratic and unaccountable institution. At the risk of being regarded a bigot.

    • I agree entirely with Jed in that immigration was NOT an issue behind leaving the EU. The Bremain supporters have always wanted to say that immigration was behind the vote to leave but there has never been any serious evidence to support any such assertion.

      • Of course sovereignty was the principle on which the referendum hinged and that was echoed in the mantra ‘taking back control’.

        But I’d be surprised if the results of mass immigration, for which EU ‘free movement’ has been a major contributing factor, was not the final straw for a good many individuals who voted to leave. And it was always the rational view about the unsustainability of huge numbers entering a densely packed island which was the issue and never the wickedly divisive propaganda about ‘racism’ and ‘hate’. Of course there are always a few people who can only express themselves in unpleasant terms…

        In that context I’d say that ‘How can we live together?’ needs to start with honesty about what we think and how we feel; and that can only occur when people stop indulging in faux outrage whenever someone says something they don’t like. And I have to admit that it took me quite a while to discover that people who one might consider not very sophisticated in their thinking can often turn out to be better informed and possessed of a wisdom which stands up to anything offered by those usually considered to have great minds! Genuine humility (the absence of arrogance) in oneself may well be a first requisite in learning from and appreciating other people – and I’m sure it’s a vital component of ‘wholeness’ (Ian’s third point).

    • Jed, thanks for the link. The article does actually say:

      Immediately prior to the referendum data from Ipsos-Mori showed that immigration/migration was the most cited issue when Britons were asked ‘What do you see as the most/other important issue facing Britain today?’ with 48% of respondents mentioning it when surveyed.[9]

      So I wasn’t *too* far off!! The article also notes

      Lord Ashcroft’s election day poll of 12,369 voters also discovered that ‘One third (33%) [of leave voters] said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”'[8]

      so Clive’s comment is completely off the mark.

  3. People obsessed with “control of our own future” and self sufficiency (as if even Trump’s America, with all its power, could stand alone) might want to remember Who is really in “control” – and has the right to our submission, however “strong” and “in control” we kid ourselves we are. And He has not rescued us from one “foreign oppressor” for us merely to offer our increasingly humble services to others even worse and more untouchable.
    Nor could anyone living in the East of England honestly say “nah, nothing to do with immigration, Guv.” “Too many immigrants” and “overpopulation” sooner or later pop up in every conversation as the easy excuse for every problem from overdevelopment to potholes in the roads.
    (Funny how those deploring threats to the “Christian character of country” are never seen in church and would struggle to name any Bible character not seen in the school nativity play. And class at least nominally Christian Europeans the same as Asian and African Muslims)
    What Brexit *has* achieved is a reputation for reneging on our alliances that will make others price into those “new trade deals” the risk of ever trusting us again – ditching the Commonwealth to join might have passed as one exception, but two walkouts start to look like a habit.
    We will do it, but we are kidding ourselves if we think we can shut out or “control” the world to our liking. And I console my fears these days by reflecting that even while everyone’s eyes were on the spectacular evils of the Herods and their Roman overlords, God’s purposes were quietly working our salvation underneath.
    May He have mercy on us all.

    • Something tells me you aren’t very keen on Brexit, Karen!

      And it would be ridiculous to suggest that there are no good arguments for staying in the EU. But I do think you are a bit ungracious in how you view the majority of your fellow citizens who voted to leave, because you seem to imply that they use immigration as an ‘excuse’ and are happy to ‘renege’ on alliances. And that reveals a negative judgement on other people which depends on your own subjective view that they hold less than pleasant attitudes. Could it not be that they are quite as nice people as the minority who oppose Brexit but understand the facts differently?

      I would seriously question your assertion that ‘…those deploring threats to the “Christian character of country” are never seen in church…’ It might of course be true that they are never seen in churches where they are viewed as ‘deplorables’ – but who could blame them!

      But the Brexit issue has taught us all that we have much to learn about living with difference. One particular thing may be that when people are silenced by a subtly (and not so subtly) imposed embargo on free expression of opinions, it can come as a shock to discover that you haven’t controlled what people actually think. And for all respecters of the individual sovereignty of thought, bestowed on human beings by God, that comes as a great relief.

      • “It might of course be true that they are never seen in churches where they are viewed as ‘deplorables’ – but who could blame them!”
        So how do you think those long-standing and devoted members of the Body of Christ who can’t muster four pure-blooded English grandparents and a pink birth certificate feel, when they find themselves wondering if the person taking Communion next to them quietly voted to have them thrown out of the country?
        When any two Brexiters can agree on what they want and what they plan to achieve with their freedom, beyond the slam of a door and the cry of “You can’t tell ME what to do!” which has characterised every human “self-rule” movement from Adam to the abortion referendum, I’ll happily consider whatever it is they’re offering. I have never been an uncritical fan of the EU either – their treatment of Greece and Italy, for instance, has been (to use your word) deplorable.
        But instead Leavers are still fighting among themselves after 18 months and with only a few more to go, and no more idea where they are going, why, or what they want to do when they get there, than I used to do when my age was single figures and I “ran away from home”. And even at that age I was smart enough to make sure I took my Post Office book!
        May the Lord keep His hand on us and help us through these fear-inducing times.

        • Karen, I voted to leave the EU and I’m as angry about the shambles over Brexit as you are. I also think that the disarray amongst Brexit supporting government ministers is the inevitable result of having a leader who a) is completely unequipped to lead, b) doesn’t truly believe in the project, c) has no ideas of her own. Having foolishly gone for a snap election and botched it she has lost her parliamentary majority – it’s a perfect storm. So we’re all frustrated and angry about what’s happening, even if it’s from opposite points of view.

          And it’s mostly been like that, one way or another, all through history!

          But Ian’s article is about how we can live with difference. I’m sure we’d both agree that as Christians we regularly need to draw back from the immediate and inhabit the eternal. Our amazing eternal God really is sovereign, and that wholly encapsulates our earthly realm with all its problems – it’s his and he’s active within it through the witness and prayers of his people. And that has to be a massive comfort and source of peace for us even though we can’t avoid getting steamed up at our collective human inadequacy to live happily together. And surely it is the power and the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit (released by our prayers) rather than our own preferred political agendas that is the ultimate solution to our differences. In that regard I’d say that it is the job of God’s church to preach about him and not about politics, and I’m sure such a focus is what he would want from us and what will be the greatest cause for good in our society.

          I’ll say ‘Amen’ to your last sentence.

    • Your point about Britain’s reputation for reneging on alliances is a good one. Yes, Britain ditched the Commonwealth to join the EEC, and now it’s ditching the EU to ‘take back control’. In both cases, British policy has been determined by putting perceived self-interest before all other considerations.

      That’s an important point to take into account for any country that deals with you. Former British colonies like Australia should take special heed. They were abandoned by you in 1972, which caused them significant economic and social distress. Now you want to renew relations with them because suddenly it’s in your interest to do so.

      Don’t be surprised if they treat your overtures with suspicion. Australia (and New Zealand and other Commonwealth nations) has forged new economic relationships and its emotional attachment to what only older people still think of as the “mother country” has dwindled to virtually nothing. Australians no longer rely on British markets for their goods and services, and the link with your monarchy is unlikely to outlive your current queen.

      While they may view the British market as a useful opportunity for surplus growth, never again will Australians let themselves become reliant on one partner to the exclusion of others. They learned their lessons from Britain’s cavalier treatment in the early 70s. So while there’s some potential in the Australian market for British products, it isn’t a fraction of what you need in order to survive.

      Australians buy from Japan, China, New Zealand and the US. One or two British products may find their way onto Australian shelves in return for one or two Australian products being accepted in the UK. But will that keep you in the style you’ve become accustomed to after half a century of unrestricted access to the EU market? Even if every Australian on the planet dumped every product from every nation and bought only British from now on, they couldn’t provide you with a fraction of the income you could earn in the Single Market. And of course Australia won’t let you monopolise their market ever again. If they did, what would they do when you dumped them once again the next time self-interest dictated a change in your direction? If some future UK government reapplied for EU membership, an Australia dependent on Britain would be up the proverbial creek. I don’t think they’re that stupid.

      Britain has proved it’s not be be trusted as a partner. Other countries do deals with you at their own risk. If they’re wise, they’ll limit their exposure by making those deals narrow in scope and application. In the meantime, what do you intend to live on?

  4. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

    Ominous if hardly surprising news.

    If Christians have to apply the Old Testament, which according to Mr Paul is still central to Christian belief, then you’re going to have to to carry on persecuting gays.

    So when’s the next stoning at Mr Paul’s church? If he gets arrested for inciting his congregation to violence, will he fight his case all the way to the Supreme Court and win a ruling that gays may be stoned by Christians as an expression of their fundamental right to freedom of religion?

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to reformulate Mr Paul’s exhortation in words everyone can understant. “Be a homophic bigot, as your Father is a homophobic bigot.” Now that’s a battle cry that just about every Christian I’ve ever met will get behind. Good thing for me then that there are so few of you.

    • Dear Holger,

      Which bit of the Commandment “Thou shall not kill” are you struggling to understand?

      This is not just a saying or a verse but an outright commandment in the Old Testament that goes throughout the whole Bible.

      Similarly which bit of the commandment “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” are you struggling to understand? I ask because you are clearly telling all Christians to persecute gays when it is in fact Islamic countries that not only send gay people to gaol but even execute them ….but then like most LGBT organisations you probably express your unbending acceptance of Islamic faith but persecute Christians instead knowing that Christians won’t attack you or kill you or engage in terrorism – after all Christians are the ones who take the COMMANDMENT “Thou shalt not kill” seriously.

      Perhaps you should think again about your double standards.

      • Which part of this commandment don’t YOU understand?

        “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

        The bible forbids killing while commanding it at the same time. There are only two possible inferences to draw. 1) The bible is inconsistent, fallible and therefore human in origin. 2) While “Thou shalt not kill” is the general rule, there are specific exceptions indicated by specific commandments.

        So which is it? Is the bible a load of contradictory nonsense, or is its instruction to kill gays god’s word?

        • Holger, I don’t mind people with different views commenting, but here and elsewhere your contributions are bordering on trolling.

          I would like to draw a line under this, and other, unhelpful exchanges. Thank you.

          • So difficult questions are ‘trolling’, are they? A Christian response is to avoid answering them and accuse the questioner of nefarious intent.

            What is my intent? Self-preservation, of course. Just like you. Our problem stems from the fact that your philosophy denies me the right to exist under any terms except those that are intolerable to me. Which leaves me with no alternative but to challenge it.

            I’m not surprised you don’t want to disgrace yourself in the eyes of the general public by admitting that you believe gays should suffer the full biblical punishment for our “crimes”. It doesn’t do your evangelising efforts any good at all. You’re attempting to hawk a decaying corpse of a religion by spraying Chanel Number 5 over it and claiming the resulting sickly-sweet stench is the smell of holiness. Your problem is that the all the perfumes of Araby can’t conceal the odour of hatred and cruelty.

            Answer my questions or don’t answer them. The result is the same. Ban me or don’t ban me. The gay “problem” still looms large over your church and undermines all your efforts to evangelise and spread your message.

            Whether you listen to us or not, we’re still here, we’re still queer, and we’re not going to “shut up and take a cold shower”. Nor will we castrate ourselves as a sacrifice to your vengeful and homophobic god. We know what happened to Alan Turing. You won’t get rid of us so easily.

          • No Holger

            First you misquote when you type “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” and then you quite untruthfully call it a commandment when it is clearly not even if you had got the quote right!

            This blatant, clear and seemingly deliberate misrepresentation of Christianity needs to stop and any comment must at least be truthful.

          • No, Holger, difficult questions are not trolling—but it is becoming increasingly clear that you cannot tell the difference.

            You persist in projecting on my and others things that are clearly not true of us, so the accusations don’t actually stick.

            You will always be welcome to ask questions and engage in proper conversation—but was you say here does not constitute that.

  5. Ian can I disagree with this summary:
    ‘In Acts 2.45, the early Jesus community ‘gave to anyone who had need’—and not merely any within their own group who had need. No wonder they ‘enjoyed the favour of all the people’ (Acts 2.47). Here was a place where the love of God so filled them that it spilled over into the society around.’
    Both this section in chapter 2 and the one in chapter 4 are prefaced by the context: ‘now all who believed’. This was a concerned focus on the church as ‘a chosen generation’ using Peter’s words or the context of Paul’s phrase ‘the household of faith. To configure it as the kind of ministry the Salvation Army specialise in is to miss the main thrust of including the information which illustrates the depth of that Pentecostal revival.

    • Peter, thanks for the comment.

      I have a feeling commentators are divided…though I am away from my books just now.

      I agree with you that the common ownership was a practice amongst the believers. But Luke describes the community in more open terms than you will allow. For example, in v 42 ‘they devoted themselves…’ applies to the believers; but in the next verse the ‘everyone’ who were ‘filled with awe’ appears to have a wider reference. And the description of the community is integrated with the enjoyment ‘of the favour of all the people’.

      So I think it is quite natural to read ‘anyone who had need’ in this broader sense—not essential, but natural.

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