Digging Deeper into Love

Will Braun’s three-part series in the Canadian Mennonite, “The Sweet Solace of Polarization,” is an important reminder of our calling to love one another even through our strong differences of opinion. Walking in humility, listening patiently, being gentle with each other, showing compassion—loving one another, in other words—is crucial if we truly want to live into the unity of the Spirit as the body of Christ (Eph 4:1-2).

We do have a tendency to view things in binary terms. But life is complex. Humans are complex. Human societies are complex. The church is complex. There are few if any true binaries.

As one who has been outspoken about the importance of COVID vaccinations and protections through the pandemic, I have had to learn this lesson myself. Conversations with vaccine hesitant folks have reminded me that it’s important for individuals to consult their doctor about any medical prevention or intervention. They have reminded me that behind alternative opinions are real flesh-and-blood people who have many of the same hopes and fears that I do. They have reminded me that Christians indeed share a common desire to love our neighbours, even if we don’t always agree on the best way to do that.

Nevertheless, there are more questions we should ask each other, more conversations we should have. While humility, patience, gentleness, and compassion are foundational aspects of Christian love, there is more of love to discover. We need to dig deeper into love.

At the time I write this, over 46,500 people have died in Canada because of COVID. In my province of Manitoba, one out of every 625 people has died because of this virus. COVID has disproportionately affected the elderly, racialized persons, and the immune-compromised with severe outcomes. Statistics Canada estimates that 15% of Canadians who have contracted the virus have developed “long COVID,” with symptoms lingering from a few months to potentially years after the initial infection. Some of these long-term symptoms are relatively mild, but for some people they are debilitating.

Major health-governing and research-collecting bodies like the World Health Organization continue to conclude that COVID vaccines are safe, with extremely low risk of health complications from the vaccine (a far lower risk of harm than COVID itself presents). While vaccines have not provided the “bullet-proof immunization” many of us hoped for, they do reduce the forward transmission of the virus and they significantly reduce severe outcomes for those who are vaccinated. When good masks and ventilation are added into the mix in indoor spaces, the risk of virus transmission is lessened considerably.

All this should prompt us to ask more questions of each other, to dig deeper into love.

How do we relate to “experts” as we make ethical decisions? Which “experts” do we trust, and why do we trust them and not others?

How do we relate to our “governing authorities,” to use Paul’s term in Romans 13, especially as it relates to the only debt we should owe, Paul says there, the debt to love our neighbours?

How do we balance a concern for the common good with a concern for individual freedoms, again especially as it relates to the call of Jesus to love our neighbour as if their needs were our own?

If we do accept the reports noted above regarding COVID’s impact on the most health-vulnerable in our society, what does it mean for us to love these neighbours, and how do we weigh that against any potential harms we may be concerned about from vaccines or other public health protections?

Love in the way of Jesus requires a particular posture toward one another, yes, a posture of humility, patience, gentleness, and compassion. But that is not the totality of Jesus’ way of love. His is a devoted love of God expressed pre-eminently through loving our neighbour as if their needs were ours (Matt 22:36-40). And as we see from Jesus in the Gospels, the neighbours we should pay special attention to are the sick, the poor, the stranger—all those most vulnerable to harm.

May the fullness of this love drive us forward as we navigate the complexities of the ethical decisions we face.


This article was published in the Canadian Mennonite (Nov. 28, 2022) as “A biblical case for vaccines.” Not only is that title inaccurate, it encourages readers to see the piece as arguing for one side in a polarized debate, and thus badly misses the point of the article. That title change was an editorial decision.


The Parable of the Good Muslim

The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Everyone knows the story. Or, at least, they know what a “good Samaritan” is. It’s someone who does a good deed, someone who helps a person in need.

Sure, but it’s more than that. The story is actually more jarring than that. Or, at least, it should be.

Jesus tells the story to describe what “neighbour-love” looks like, what it actually means to “love your neighbour as yourself.” This “neighbour-love,” Jesus says, is vitally connected to “God-love,” what it means to “love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” The Greatest Commandment—the One Thing God asks of us, the One Thing that encompasses all things God requires—is to love God and love others.

So what does this “neighbour-love” look like? It looks like a Samaritan showing compassion and extending care to a Jew in desperate need.

Simple, right? Just your everyday good deed, a random act of kindness, the kind of thing any decent person would do. Right?

Not quite. Read it again. And then again. And again—this time with feeling. (And maybe a little context.)

First note: As any first-year seminarian can tell you, the Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t really get along. Okay, that’s understatement. There’s one story of some Samaritans throwing human bones into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, defiling it. But then again, a century before that the Jews completely destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. You know, “eye for an eye” and all that. So a Samaritan and a Jew? We’re talking “despised other” here, like when Donald Trump talks about “Mexicans” or “Muslims.”

Note #2: The Samaritan shows compassion and extends care without reservation: no questions asked, no conditions to be met, no fine print to qualify the offer. He’s not concerned about his own safety and security. He’s not concerned about who’s going to pay him back. He’s not all, “Well, maybe if I help this Jew he’ll convert to my religion and come worship at my temple.” (Seriously, think about that a moment.)

A third note: The people who you’d think would most likely help the victim are exactly those who refuse to do so. A priest, a Levite. A Christian, a Canadian, a pastor. Nope. Instead, it’s the least likely person (from the Jewish perspective) who is the hero of the story, the “despised other” themselves.

There’s much more to the story than meets the eye. There’s much more to the story than even these three notes. But these three things have struck me recently as I’ve read and re-read the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Did I say “Good Samaritan”? I meant “Good Muslim.”

Now there’s an idea. Let’s try that out and see how it feels—and if this makes you uneasy, if it makes you all up-in-arms and red-in-the-face and furious with me, then maybe you’re starting to hear the story correctly.

Wanting to make himself look good, the expert in ethics asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Morden to Winkler by a back road, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead in the ditch.

“Now by chance a well-respected pastor was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a devout Christian, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

“But a Muslim immigrant while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having treated them with antiseptic. Then he put him in his own car, brought him to the hospital, and sat with him through the night. The next day he wrote a cheque worth two days’ wages and gave it to the nurse on duty, and said, ‘This is for any extra expenses he has; when I come back, I will repay you whatever more is needed.’

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The ethical expert said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl