I want to talk to you this morning about the Syrian refugee crisis and what I believe should be the Christian response. This is a hot topic with believers lining up on both sides, but we all have to stop and ask ourselves, "What does the Bible say that our response should be?"
Stories and images of the Syrian refugee crisis have flooded the news confronting us with the heartbreaking reality of a humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands of desperate human beings are fleeing air strikes, terror, and violence from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and beyond. We have probably all seen the image of a child washed up on the beach, drowned in his family's attempt to flee certain death in the war zone that was once their neighborhood.
More than 250,000 people have died since the violence broke out in Syria in 2011, and at least 11 million people in the country of 22 million have fled their homes. Syrians are now the world's largest refugee population.
The Syrian war, and particularly the rise of ISIS, in my opinion, has everything to do with United States actions dating back to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which gave rise to ISIS in the first place. We caused this refugee problem, but only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been accepted into the United States since 2011. And let's not forget that the United States is a society of immigrants who proclaim a commitment to welcoming desperate people in need of a new start. The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty state:
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The United States is a nation which prides itself on its Christian heritage, and a nation in which the vast majority of people—including elected leaders—self-identify as Christians.
So I want to remind you this morning of what the Bible says should be our response to people in need. You may not like it but if you are a follower of Yeshua you must line up under it. Believers, we are to be identified by our love:
"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." John 13:35 NASB
Some of these Syrian refugees are Christians, but Christian or not, they need our help.
"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' Matthew 5:43 NASB
Yeshua was referring to the Rabbinic teaching, which was supposedly based on Scripture. But the Tanakh will be searched in vain for any precept which required the Israelites to entertain any hatred toward their enemies. Thou shalt "hate thine enemy" was a Rabbinical invention pure and simple. The Tanakh taught them to love their neighbor:
'You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:18 NASB
This teaching is clear enough. The problem was that over time it had become twisted. The religious leaders had distorted the truth in order to accommodate themselves. They taught that you were to love only your neighbor.
Who is my neighbor? Some of the schools of the scribes taught that fellow students of the law were neighbors, so it was limited to scribes and Pharisees. Some schools of the scribes and Pharisees taught that it was wider than that. They taught that your neighbor was every blood relative, every friend, or person living in your locality, i.e., in their community. Other schools taught that it was much broader yet. They taught that every Jew was a neighbor, but Jews only! No person could be a neighbor if they were not a Jew. In other words, they had to hate every person who was not a Jew. Some schools were much more liberal. They taught that Gentile proselytes who had joined the Jewish faith were neighbors. This was the broadest school of the scribes and Pharisees. The most common teaching was that only good Jews were considered as neighbors. Publicans, harlots, or any public sinner was positively excluded.
As a result of this teaching, they had to hate every person that was not what they esteemed to be a good Jew. The command to "love your neighbor" doesn't mean much if you don't know who your neighbor is. The lawyer that tested Yeshua questioned Him as to who his neighbor was:
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?" And he answered, "YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." And He said to him, "You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE." But wishing to justify himself, he said to Yeshua, "And who is my neighbor?" Luke 10:25-29 NASB
This lawyer wanted to justify his hatred for publicans and sinners. He wanted to justify his school of thought, so he asked who was his neighbor in order to distinguish between those whom one loved or hated. He expected Yeshua to give His narrow view of the meaning of the word "neighbor" to mean his fellow scribes and Pharisees. He knew the law, and he knew what it meant. This scribe, or lawyer, was "willing to justify himself" as having earned salvation by strictly observing the law of loving God above all and loving his neighbor as himself as he cited it.
Yeshua answered this lawyer's question, "And who is my neighbor?" with the parable about the good Samaritan:
Yeshua replied and said, "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. Luke 10:30 NASB
A man is stripped and left half dead. Without his clothing we cannot tell to which cultural community he belongs. Is he a Pharisee? Is he a priest? Is he a Roman? We don't know, all we know is that he is a dying man in great need. A priest and Levite who were full time servants of Yahweh walk right by the man and offer no help.
"But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 "And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you.' Luke 10:33-35 NASB
The Samaritans were hated by the Jews, they were a mixed race of Jew and Gentile, and they worshiped God in the wrong manner, in the wrong place. The Jews and the Samaritans were bitter enemies because of racial pride:
The Samaritan woman therefore said to Him, "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) John 4:9 NASB
She was shocked. She couldn't understand why the Lord Yeshua was talking to her in a friendly way. There was no Rabbinic school that interpreted the term "neighbor" liberal enough to include those hated, detested Samaritans. The scribes and Pharisees considered the Samaritans as the most hated people on earth.
Our text tells us that this Samaritan felt compassion for this hurt man:
"But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, Luke 10:33 NASB
The word "compassion" literally conveys the idea of a heart contracting convulsively. We might say: His heart was squeezed by what He saw, or He was overwhelmed by the consciousness of human need. The Greek word used here for compassion is "splagchnizomai." Splagchnizomai is found only in the Gospels, and in every usage it is always related to need. This same word is used three times in Mark of Yeshua's compassion for human need and suffering.
In the Gospels Christ is moved to compassion by the sight of two blind men so that Yeshua, "moved with compassion," touched their eyes and healed them (Matthew 20:34). Or it is the sight of a leper so that Yeshua, "moved with compassion," touches and heals the leper (Mark 1:41). It is used of the time that Yeshua saw the funeral procession of the son of the widow in the city of Nain, and upon seeing her in the loss she experienced, He felt compassion for her and raised her son to life (Luke 7:13). It is the helplessness of men that generates the compassion of Christ.
Our God is a compassionate God, When Moses stood before the Lord on Mount Sinai, Yahweh revealed Himself to Israel's leader. The first adjective the Lord used to describe Himself to Moses is "compassionate":
Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations." Exodus 34:6-7 NASB
Compassion belongs to the Lord God; it is a vital aspect of His divine nature. So when we look at Christ, we should not be surprised by the compassion that He demonstrated as the Messiah. The Lord Yeshua the Christ is a compassionate God.
Remember, compassion means to be so moved on the inside that it compels you to take action on the outside. As Christians, as children of the heavenly Father, we have a duty to imitate Christ, who is described in the Bible as compassionate:
And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; Colossians 3:12 NASB
Believers must not be indifferent to suffering, but should be concerned to meet people's needs. God wants us to be full of compassion, full of pity toward others.
Back to our Samaritan. If a despised Samaritan had been found with a man who had been brutally murdered, it is not unlikely that he would have been charged with the crime. This good Samaritan was willing to risk any danger in order to preserve life.
K.E. Bailey, in his book Peasant Eyes, writes this, "An American cultural equivalent would be a Plains Indian in 1875 walking into Dodge City with a scalped cowboy on his horse, checking into a room over the local saloon, and staying the night to take care of him. Any Indian so brave would be fortunate to get out of the city alive even if he had saved the cowboy's life."
So at great risk to himself, the Samaritan acted on his compassion and helped this man in need. Yeshua then asks the lawyer:
"Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?" Luke 10:36 NASB
Yeshua asks, Who is the neighbor? Most commentators and Bible teachers say that your neighbor is anyone with a need. Is that right? According to the text, who is the neighbor?
And he said, "The one who showed mercy toward him." And Yeshua said to him, "Go and do the same." Luke 10:37 NASB
Who is the neighbor? The one who showed mercy. Who was that? The guy that was beaten up? No! It was the Samaritan! So what is the answer to the man's original question: Who is my neighbor? The Samaritan! Who is it that you have to love? The Samaritans! Yeshua was forcing this man to say: Even my enemy is my neighbor. Yeshua says to the man: You go, love your enemy!
The term "neighbor" is used in the Tanakh in a twofold manner: wider and more general, and narrower and more specific. In its common usage, it includes anyone with whom we may come into contact, having respect unto our fellow men. In its specific sense, it signifies one who is near to us by ties of blood or habitation. But anyone who compares Scripture with Scripture should be clear on the Lord's meaning:
"Speak now in the hearing of the people that each man ask from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor for articles of silver and articles of gold." Exodus 11:2 NASB
The reference here is to the Egyptians among whom Israel then lived.
"Strangers," along with "neighbors," are represented as those we are to love. In the same chapter where we find the command to love our neighbor, we find this:
'When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 'The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 NASB
So "neighbor" is not restricted to those who are our friends or even those we know.
When Yahweh prohibited His people from bearing false witness against their neighbors, and when He forbade them coveting the wife of a neighbor (Ex. 20:16, 17), the prohibition must be understood without any limitation. So, the commandment to love their neighbors, understood correctly, commanded them to love all mankind. In the Tanakh, it is clear that Yahweh wants us to love our enemies:
"If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. "If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him. Exodus 23:4-5 NASB
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; Or the LORD will see it and be displeased, And turn His anger away from him. Proverbs 24:17-18 NASB
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; Proverbs 25:21 NASB
How they could twist these to teach that you are to hate your enemy is beyond me.
In Leviticus 19:18, it qualifies how we are to love our neighbors. It says there that you are to love them "as yourself." This ruled out any kind of superficial and casual application of the word "love." To love someone else as you love yourself is to take great care in loving them. We all certainly take great care in loving ourselves.
The scribes and Pharisees had both taken away from and added to the Scripture. They had limited the meaning of the word "neighbor," which must be properly interpreted to mean every human being. They also added to the text of Scripture by saying that you were to hate your enemy. As opposed to their teaching, notice carefully what Yeshua taught:
"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? "If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:44-48 NASB
Examining this passage of Scripture will reveal the transformed behavior that Yeshua is after in each of us. The point is that Yeshua does not want us to act like the world. He wants us to manifest a behavior that is based upon a supernatural principle of divine life. As a result of his sinfulness, man tends to treat others the way he is treated. There is revenge for revenge, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life with a revengeful spirit. That is the response of man by nature. He desires that we live above the level of mediocrity by the power of His Spirit. He desires for us to live a life that in our own strength we cannot live.
The first thing He says to us is that you should love your enemies. This is a powerful and radical teaching about the inclusiveness of love. The kind of love that Yeshua advocates even embraces our enemies.
To those listening to Yeshua that day, this must have seemed like an impossibility. How could anyone love his or her enemy? Enemies don't evoke love in anyone. Yeshua, however, wanted to make a point that He considered our neighbor to include our enemies. In other words, no one is outside the scope of our love. Or no one should be. We then are called to manifest love to all people.
Our culture uses the word "love" to mean just about everything except what the Bible means by it. Greek is a language which is rich in synonyms; its words often have shades of meaning which English does not possess. In Greek there are four different words for love. There is the noun storge. This word speaks of the love of family. It is used of the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent. There is the noun eros. That word is used to describe erotic love, sensual love, what you feel when you "fall in love," a passionate attraction toward the opposite sex. That kind of love is not even mentioned in the Word of God. And then there is phileo, which means: "affection, friendship, a feeling of tender affection toward someone else." It is used to describe a man's closest and nearest and truest friends.
The word Yeshua uses in our text is agapao. This Greek word was rarely used in Greek literature prior to the New Testament. In the New Testament, the word agape took on a special meaning; it was used by the New Testament writers to designate a volitional love (as opposed to a purely emotional love), a self-sacrificial love, a love naturally expressed by divinity, but not so easily by humanity. It seems as though the early Christian Church took this word out of its obsoleteness and made it a characteristic word for love.
Agape love is a response to someone who is unworthy of love. This concept of love was derived from the cross. God loved the world and gave His Son for it. That was a response to unworthy people, to sinners, to those who were His enemies. That is agape. It is a love that proceeds from the nature of the lover, rather than the worth of the person who is loved. It is a love that gives, a love that seeks the best of the object loved. Agape is a commitment of the will to cherish and uphold another person. It is the only word ever used to describe God's love. It is a decision that you make and a commitment that you have launched upon to treat another person with concern, with care, with thoughtfulness, and to work for his or her best interests.
Yeshua never asked us to love our enemies in the same way as we love our dearest friend or spouse or family member. The word he uses is different than the words used for those kinds of love.
The word "love," as used by our Savior in our text, could be seen as synonymous with the word "mercy." When Yeshua said, "Love your enemies" He is talking about a merciful spirit, tenderness of heart, which disposes a person to overlook injuries or to treat an offender better than he deserves; while they are cursing, you are blessing. When they come with spite to persecute, you do not respond as they do. You pray for them, do good unto them. This is the love of which Yeshua is speaking.
We are not called to live on the same level as the world. Indeed, we are called to live on a level that is not only higher, but impossible. The point of what Yeshua is saying is that we must live by the power of God. He is asking us to do things that in our own strength we cannot do. The only possible way to truly love our enemies is to live by the power of God. He is calling us to summit our weaknesses to Him and allow Him to pour His strength into us. When we are weak, then He is strong.
So, as Christians, I think that our response to the Syrian refugee crisis should be clear, we are to love them, we are to show mercy to them. We are to help meet their needs. And yet more than half the nation's governors say they oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states. The majority of these are Republican governors. Yet this is the party that most Christians align themselves with.
The announcement of these governors came after authorities revealed that at least one of the suspects believed to be involved in the Paris terrorist attacks entered Europe among the current wave of Syrian refugees. He had falsely identified himself as a Syrian named Ahmad al Muhammad and was allowed to enter Greece in early October.
And the reaction of so many Christians in this country is, "But some of the refugees may be terrorists." Yes, some of them may be, so do we neglect those in need to keep ourselves safe? Paul wrote to the Philippians:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Yeshua, Philippians 2:5 NASB
As believers we are to have the attitude of Christ. In the context here, what is He talking about? The attitude that is being called for is the one of verses 3-4:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4 NASB
The attitude we are to have is Christ's attitude of self-sacrificing humility for the needs of others. In the end of chapter 2 Paul uses Epaphroditus as an example of a man who lived a self-sacrificial life for others:
Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me. Philippians 2:29-30 NASB
The word "work" is ergon, meaning: "toil, effort, work. Notice that it was the work of Christ." The word "risking" is from the Greek word parabole. It is a gambling term. It means: "to throw down a stake, to roll the dice." He risked his life as a gambler will take risks for a possible gain. He hazards his life "to complete what was deficient in your service to me." This is not a rebuke. He is saying, "Epaphroditus is here to do what you can't do because you're so far away."
Epaphroditus loved the Philippians, who he was representing, and Paul, who he was ministering to, so much that he almost lost his life pouring it out in sacrificial service to meet Paul's physical needs.
In the days of the Early Church there was an association of men and women called the parabolani, the gamblers. It was their aim to visit the prisoners and the sick, especially those who were ill with dangerous and infectious diseases. In A.D. 252, plague broke out in Carthage; the heathen threw out the bodies of their dead and fled in terror. Cyprian, the Christian bishop, gathered his congregation together and set them to burying the dead and nursing the sick in that plague-stricken city; and by so doing they saved the city, at the risk of their lives, from destruction and desolation.
There should be in the Christian an almost reckless courage which makes him ready to gamble with his life to serve Christ and man. You won't die prematurely, so go ahead and take some risks.
Epaphroditus risked it all, life included, to minister to others. He modeled the kenosis, he emptied himself. What are we willing to risk to meet someone's needs? We don't like risks. We won't help someone in trouble because we're afraid we might get hurt or even killed. Most of us do the opposite of Epaphroditus, we regard our life as a thing so precious that it is to be guarded at all costs. This is not the attitude of Christ:
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:8 NASB
The Bible teaches that we are to give up our lives in order to save them:
"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in gehenna. Matthew 10:28 NASB
We are not to fear people, they can't hurt you. We are to fear Yahweh and Him alone.
We are not to selfishly guard our lives, we are to give them away in ministry to others:.
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. 1 John 3:16-18 NASB
Following Christ's example, we should be willing to lay down our lives to meet the needs of others.
Epaphroditus, is an example to us all, he is the loving gambler, risking it all to minister to Paul's needs. Paul would have survived without him, but that's not how Epaphroditus saw it.
We selfishly clutch life and guard our own interests when the mind of Christ is to be selfless and sacrificial:
because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me. Philippians 2:30 NASB
This is what Yahweh calls us all to do. This is uncomfortable to hear, isn't it? If we are going to impact our society, if we are going to be effective in our evangelism, we need to quit selfishly guarding our lives and start taking some risks in order to meet the needs of others.