Working in the social service sector, you come across pretty heart-wrenching stuff regularly. But some things are sobering. I overheard one such conversation a couple years back. My colleagues were having an informal discussion on how to get more to rally around a particular group of Singaporeans in need.
“What about the churches or Christian organisations?” one suggested. “Well,” the other hesitated, “they prefer to go overseas because they don’t think people in Singapore need that much help.”
My heart sank. Now, I know this cannot be entirely true.
Over the past few years, I have met many Christian individuals and organisations who tirelessly but joyfully love on vulnerable and unseen communities in Singapore. They do not seek or enjoy any limelight, which is probably why they largely remain nameless and faceless.
At the same time, few would dispute that the needs in many other nations are on an altogether different scale from what we can comprehend here today – Singapore is not a war zone, nor has it ever been devastated by natural disasters. But as with any other society, it is still deeply broken in many ways.
It also says something that such a perception of the Church still exists – that she would prioritise those abroad and neglect those at home. This thought in particular troubled me. It also prompted a personal journey to uncover what living out biblical justice and mercy as a follower of Christ should look like.
When broaching issues of justice and mercy, the first Bible passage that comes to mind is often what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
In it, an expert in the law rightly says that the way to inherit eternal life is by loving God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind – and loving your neighbour as yourself. But after Jesus affirms his answer, the expert continues to asks, “And who is my neighbour?”
In response, Jesus tells the story of how a man goes on a journey and gets beaten up and left for dead. The man is seen but passed by a priest and a Levite – the very people you’d think should have stopped to help. Yet it is a Samaritan – someone from an ethnic group despised by Jews at the time – who eventually saves the man’s life.
At this point, we usually conclude that our “neighbour” is the man in need, and that we need to be like the Samaritan and love people in need.
And that’s not wrong. But the thing is, I realised that Jesus raises the bar: The “neighbour” He now points out to the expert in the law is the Samaritan, not the man in need. It’s easy to see the person we need to be a neighbour to as a person in need. But it’s less easy to see someone who belongs to a different social class or even ethnicity as a neighbour.
God knows it is harder for us to love such people – those who we do not accord the same level of respect or dignity to as we would for others, those we overlook or perhaps choose not to see.
Justice and mercy are not just good things or things that only good people do. They are basic requirements.
As if that were not enough, it also struck me that Jesus describes the Samaritan not as a “good neighbour”, but simply a “neighbour”. In fact, while we always talk about the “Good Samaritan”, nowhere in the actual text does Jesus actually describe the Samaritan as “good”.
It seems that to Jesus, stopping on a dangerous road to tend to someone’s wounds, sacrificing comfortable transportation and freely giving time and money to a total stranger who just happens to be in your path – are merely part of the job description.
And when I went through the rest of the Bible, I found again and again that justice and mercy are not just good things or things that only good people do. It is a basic requirement. It is a core module, not an elective. It is not something we check off by just going on a short-term mission trip or volunteering some weekends. It is how we are supposed to live every day.
According to Wytsma, seeing justice as a “good thing” is to treat it like “a hobby, like fashion, like something we just do when we feel like it … it’s in that country rather than in our city.” But justice is “universal, all-encompassing, and is a necessity. God is defined by His love and also by His justice,” Wytsma explains, “and we are called to know Him through His justice.”
If you care about something deeply enough, Wytsma says, you will want to learn all you can about it. In his view, the best place to do that is in community and collaboration with people from a wide breadth of fields – practitioners, experts, pastors – all lending their voices to the conversation. It is these core beliefs that shape The Justice Conference.
This year, the Asia edition of The Justice Conference will be held in Singapore for the very first time, with the theme “Love Thy Neighbour”. It will delve deeper into the theology of justice, its centrality to the gospel, and why it matters to us as followers of Christ. The conference will look at issues happening in other parts of the world as well as those right here in our neighbourhood, and examine what we can do about them.
I love how Jesus always closes with a call to action: “Go and sin no more”, “go and make disciples of all nations” and to the lawyer, “go and do likewise”. We shout “Amen”, but then it sinks in that these calls are mostly impossible.
Until we see the twist in the plot – that we are that man on the road to eternal death, and it was Jesus, the One who was rejected and despised, who rescued us when He really didn’t need to.
When we recognise both the depths of our brokenness and the overwhelming grace of God, we find the humility and strength to go and be good neighbours to anyone, for we are all equally broken and in need of the one Good Neighbour.
Perhaps then no one would even need to discuss how to get more people to help communities in need. Because their neighbours would already be there.
The Justice Conference Asia 2019 is running from October 18-19, 2019 at Pentecost Methodist Church. There will be main talks as well as workshop streams on these topics: human trafficking and migration, creation care, business for good, justice and the gospel, and communities at risk. Visit their website for more details.
- What compels you to love your neighbour?
- What stops you from loving your neighbour?
- Who is your neighbour? How can you bless him/her by doing something for them?