You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,o what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers, you did it to me.’
When it comes to what people we will receive and let into our life, finding people who will receive and affirm who we feel we are, whose own words and actions are consonant with what we value and think is an important part of building relationships. One of the most important considerations for human relationships is finding people who share our own inner, mental world. This is such an important pat of our relationships that the absence of this can become a great source of dismay and disturbance about others. As Daniel Siegel in The Pocket Guide of Interpersonal Neurobiology describes it: “The mind we experience in our own subjective world can become filled with frustration if the other person does not see and acknowledge with positive regard our own inner world.”1
This basic social principle leads to the all-too-common “like-attracts-like” principle of relationships. Men and women will build a home together because they share much in common with each other. Communities will be formed by people who more or less share similar values, characteristics, goals, etc. Churches, synagogues, and mosques are regularly filled with people who share similar theological and ethical beliefs and values. Such relationships and networks, when they become increasingly intimate and close, leads to the release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin, creating a deeper emotional bond with each other that serves as the basis for deeper empathy and personal accessibility.
Yet, there is a dark side to this basic principle of social life: it can make us more aggressive towards through who differ, including those who we deem to be a threat to our values and the values of those we love and care for. Oxytocin does not simply increase our bond and connection to a loved and valued person, but it also makes us more protective of them from the threats that we believe others may pose. This is usually a good thing when a mother is caring for their infant, making them protective of any threats to their baby’s wellbeing while they are unable to take care of themselves. Jesus Himself takes up this very maternal image of motherly care in the image of the mother hen shielding their chicks to describe His own ministry while expressing a warning those who have opposed, and have ultimately misled and harmed the people, that their “house” is desolate (Matthew 23.37-39). The protectiveness that the release of oxytocin creates can be directed in a good and healthy way. However, the way we understand the social world around us mediates the when and how our protectiveness and aggression towards others manifests itself. If we have deep-rooted beliefs that people who are different from us are evil, foolish, malicious, greedy, lazy, and other forms of strong negative characterizations, then the protective instinct that oxytocin encourages can become aggressive towards other, making us much more inclined to see people who differ from us as a threat. Close social bonds with those who are similar to us combined with a deep suspicion of those who differ from us leads us to become aggressive, arrogant, defensive, and demeaning to people whose way of life and values differ from us. Our beliefs about other types of people readily become stereotypes by which we can rationalize how we treat them in our disdain and contempt, ranging from the more overt forms aggressive to the more covert forms of aggression that can be demonstrated, such as trying to exert and power and influence over them and their life while refusing to listen to them and take them seriously.
The point undergirding this is that while our social bonds are a source of good for our life, they may also simultaneously become a motivator of evil against others to the extent that we look down upon people who are very different from us. This tension is really the tension we experience in the globalized, increasingly multicultural world. One of the early attempts to try to address this tension was to try to build broad, inclusive institutions that were defined by diversity. Insofar people did not have a deep personal connection to these institutions, such as some relatively invisible governmental institutions, increasing diversity would be little threat to other people.
However, when these institutions experienced as social networks that we experienced deep, close bonds with the people in and their missions and values, then increasing diversity would serve as a threat. For instance, the movement towards increasing representation of minorities and concerns for the social disadvantaged has been deemed as increasingly threatened the proportion of white Americans whose sense of values and community were established by the American values of liberty, freedom, and hard work. Now, the efforts to broaden the inclusion of vast people groups is often indiscriminately and derisively describes as “socialism” or “communism,” hearkening back to the feelings of cultural hostility and threats of the Cold War. For another example, take a look at the United Methodist Church, where people along the theological spectrum have become deeply mistrustful of each other. This has fostered increasing aggression towards those other people who seem to be a threat to the values they feel, or at least wish, the United Methodist Church to be an expression of. If a person has significant differences and threatens the very values that we feel unite our significant social relationships and networks together, then they will often be treated with hostility, overtly and covertly. We crave and need close social bonds and intimate social networks for our well-being and satisfaction. Yet, they can become a source of hostility.
The solution, then, isn’t to try to distance ourselves from close social connections and networks. Rather, the solution is to learn to be able to have both the closeness of social relationships and yet to not be derisive towards those who differ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions those people who love those who love them are not worthy of any reward, implicitly from the fact that they have already received their reward. Instead, he calls them to love the way God loves, who sends sun and rain to those who genuinely love Him, the righteous, and those who can oppose Him, the unrighteous. To receive and genuinely bless those who we might deem our enemy, that we might deem a threat to ourselves is the step towards loving God the way He loves. God is not like a self-righteous human who looks down his nose at those who he deems to lack character, are lazy, etc. God is concerned for the well-being of those who do not seek Him, who do not share His values expressed in creation.
Yet, there is something deeper here that just God loving those who might seem hard to love. At the heart of it is this: if you can not receive those who differ from you, you can not receive a holy God who is vastly different from you. When the social principle that forms our relationships does not simply become the glue that binds our close relationships but becomes the gate by which we distance ourselves from others and aggress upon anyone we deem to approach that gate, you become a person who becomes insulated from notable differences. It becomes something that rests in your own heart that makes you defensive to anyone whose life and values may rub up against your own. This can be another person, but it can also be God, including God speaking and working through a messenger God has sent.
There is a reason why the early Church placed a high emphasis on hospitality towards strangers. It wasn’t about an opportunity to show how good one is to another person, much as Southern “hospitality,” can often devolve into, but in being hospitable, one might receive a messenger from God. This theme occurs repeatedly throughout Israel’s Scriptures and is often the dividing line between the righteous, such as Abraham who hospitably receives three men who as messengers of God inform him he will have a child (Genesis 18.1-9), and the unrighteous, such as Sodom who seeks to dominate by rape the two angels who visited their town (Genesis 19.1-11). One’s openness to being hospitable to those who we don’t know share our values, our way of life, determines whether we are the type of persons who can receive a message from God. One’s response to the ‘other’ will determines our receptivity to the God who is utterly Other and works through those who reflect His otherness. Similarly, when Jesus portrays the final judgment between the sheep and the goats, those who Jesus receives are going to be those who received those who were who be outsiders in Jewish society. Far from just simply a message about the importance of charity, Jesus expresses a fundamental truth about how we respond to those who don’t immediately provide us much benefit and may feel like a threat: when one can show hospitality to those who dramatically differ from you, it is more about being the type of person who would also receive the Lord of the Universe.
Our responsiveness and receptivity to a holy God is revealed in our receptivity to hospitably and kindly recieve those who differ from us. Yet, if one’s posture towards others is more about controlling those because we deem a “threat” in the various ways we can overtly and covertly aggress, then one is a person who would be at risk of putting the holy God on the cross. You can know such people by the way they avoid, rationalize away, and don’t give much concern to the harder parts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching that call people to really come to the true denial of themselves, but they focus instead on those parts that make them feel important and valued, not receiving the holy God but instead drawing a caricature that simply affirms their own values and person, as if Jesus is their close friend without being willing to love the in hard way that Jesus call us to love.ew 5.43-48: