Beginnings of stories are important. They tell us what kind of story we are reading. They set parameters for how we read what is to come. They introduce us to the main characters and the world in which they live. While the rest of the story develops, the beginning usually identifies the initial problem the main characters face.
In the Beginning…
I would like to suggest that the biblical story is not really different. Genesis 1 tells us that people were created in the “image of God.” There has been a lot of debate about what that means by theologians and biblical scholars, and I do not have the space to go into those debates here. Any Google search will help you get started reviewing the viewpoints on this. However, the point I want to emphasize is that people were made in God’s image. This point is extremely significant.
Making Statements with Symbols
If I had a painting of some famous person hanging on my wall and tore it into small pieces and burned it, what sort of statement would I be making? When people burn the flag of a country, what are they trying to say? Did the Iraqi people tear down the statues of Saddam Hussein because they thought they were bad art? Or was it something else? To state the obvious, these things all symbolize something; they are images if you will.
What a person does to one of those images says something about what that person thinks of the thing that image represents. From this, I maintain that it matters how we treat other people, even people we vehemently disagree with and do not particularly like. It matters how we treat the homeless people in our cities. It matters how we treat the wait staff at restaurants, as well as the immigrants who are coming into our country.
A Central Theme of Scripture
If this was an important theme of Scripture, you would expect to find it throughout the rest of the books of the Bible. I think you do.
The first four commandments of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship to God; the next six deal with our relationship to each other. The Old Testament prophets complained about how Israel was neglecting to take care of the poor and powerless. Ezekiel prophesied against Tyre because of its mistreatment of those it conquered (Eze. 25). Jeremiah told Israel to “Do justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (22:3, ESV).
Jesus stated that how we treat others is paramount. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29–31, ESV). Luke’s account of this makes it very clear that “your neighbor” includes people you do not like as it concludes with the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to someone asking who his neighbor was (if you are unfamiliar with this passage, I encourage you to look it up and read it – Luke 22:25-37). Jesus emphasizes the importance of this in Matthew when he states that people will be judged by how they treated the stranger among them as well as the naked, hungry, sick, and imprisoned (Mt 25: 31-46).
The Apostles continue this central message of Scripture. The early church made a habit of taking care of those on the margins of society. The first deacons were appointed to make sure food and other supplies were distributed fairly among those who needed them. When Paul started his ministry to the Gentiles, he was encouraged by the Apostles still in Jerusalem to “remember the poor” wherever he went. John tells us that we are to “love one another” in his first letter. There are many, many more scriptures that illustrate this (e.g. the 59 “one another” commands found in the New Testament), but these few should suffice to demonstrate the point.
What If We Don’t Care?
I believe that many Christians have forgotten the importance of the above truth. Let me give a few examples to illustrate my point. We are losing the ability to treat each other civilly. In an age dominated by the influence of social media, political messages from both the left and the right clutter my Facebook feed accusing each other of being Fascists, Socialists, ignorant, mean, hateful, racists, bigots, etc. (and these are the nicer posts). It is becoming almost impossible to have an informed discussion on any political topic without somebody starting the name calling and hijacking the discussion. Human trafficking is still a consistent problem (yes, even in the US), and the “Me Too” movement has demonstrated that sexual harassment is still a problem today. I could go on to speak of how some LGBTQ people are treated by the culture around them, attitudes toward immigrants, the prison system, gang violence . . . There is no shortage of examples demonstrating that the world is not moving in a more civil direction.
I am convinced that biblical story states that how we treat other people is of enormous significance. It matters greatly. It is important to God, and should be important to us. No matter who they are, what they have done, or where they have come from, how we treat them matters greatly. It is a fundamental component of the gospel, and may very well be a key to demonstrating God’s love, care, and compassion for the world.