The key to life

It would be difficult to count the number of lives Dr. Jonathan Daniels touched, not only the parents and children in his pediatric practice who looked up to him but also the medical students in the school of medicine at the University at Buffalo for whom he was a mentor. “Students at the medical school were his legacy,” a classmate and colleague said. “He touched thousands and thousands of lives, and he is going to be missed.” The last two lives Daniels touched were his two daughters, when he tried to rescue them from a fire at their home last Monday. All three died in the attempt.

It may be difficult to estimate the number of lives he touched, but it’s not difficult to guess why he did it. He was passionate about caring for people, his patients and students, about inspiring others to be the best they could be, and about raising his community to a higher quality of life. And of course he was passionate about his family, so after he and his wife escaped the blaze, he went back into the house to try to save his daughters. He didn’t do any of those things because some law or code of professional ethics or unwritten social rule said he must; he did those things because it was his nature to do them, because it was his nature to value others as much as he valued himself, as much as he valued his own life.

It was the same impulse that motivated sixteen-year-old Corion Evans last week to dive into the water to save three teenage girls who had accidentally driven their car into the Pascagoula River in southern Mississippi, and to dive in again to rescue the police officer who was helping in the rescue. It was the same impulse that moved Robin Emmons, when she discovered more than 72,000 people in Charlotte, North Carolina, lacked access to fresh produce, to rip up her whole backyard and make it all a garden for people in need. Since 2008, Emmons has grown more than 26,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables for area residents.

It’s what moved Tawanda Jones to start using dance to empower the youth of Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in the country. Through her drill team program, more than 4,000 children have learned discipline, respect, and community service, and all of them have graduated from high school. Because of that same impulse, Kakenya Ntaiya is inspiring change in her native Kenyan village. After becoming the first woman in the village to attend college in the United States, she returned to open the village’s first primary school for girls. “Our work is about empowering the girls,” she said. “They are dreaming of becoming lawyers, teachers, doctors.”

Such motivation, such concern for the good of others, even others to whom we’re not related and who may be very different from us, is not exceptional; it’s normal, part of how we’re created and who we are, it’s in our spiritual DNA. And gaining the fullness of life we seek is not a matter of acquiring something we don’t have; it’s a matter of setting free the impulse to love that we already have written, and often obscured, deep within us.

The ancient wisdom of our faith tells us that God will fill our lives with good in all things when we observe God’s commandments that are written in the book of the law (Deut. 30:9-10). But those commandments, things the Source of life itself requires us to do to be full and whole and complete, are not inscribed objectively, externally, as if on tablets of stone. As Jeremiah told us would happen, they are written within us, inscribed on our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). They are in our mouth and in our hearts for us to observe (Deut. 30:14).

So this lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? It’s a fair question, one many of us have often asked one way or another – how do I live a better life? how do I live the life God wants me to live? how can I be my best self? how can I gain the abundant life Jesus talks about? And even though the lawyer asked the question to test Jesus, it may also have been a sincere question. He may honestly have been looking for a richer, deeper, more meaningful quality of life that he had been missing despite all his other success. He knew what the book said he must do to gain that kind of life: love God with everything he was, and love his neighbor as himself. “You’ve given the right answer,” Jesus said; “do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

Then the lawyer started making things complicated. He wanted to know who his neighbor was. Is the rule to love absolute or contingent? Who is my neighbor and who isn’t? Are there limits to the requirement to love? Are there people who are not my neighbor, whom I don’t have to love? Are there any who can be excluded from my love? So Jesus told the story we’ve come to know as the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

The most common way to read the parable is to hear Jesus telling us to be like the Samaritan and offer help to those in need, even if it means some considerable cost, inconvenience, or risk for us. Most of us probably read it that way. But when the lawyer wants to know whom he is to love, who his neighbor is, Jesus asks, who proved to be the victim’s neighbor? We’re not called to be like the Samaritan; we’re called to be like the victim. Whom is the victim to love? The one who is wounded and helpless is to love the last one he believes can be of help: the Samaritan, the one worthless and rejected in the eyes of mainstream society, the one who appears to have nothing to offer but who in fact holds the power to rescue us and make us whole.

The motivation to love that way is not written in a book of law; it’s written on our hearts, woven into our makeup. There’s no reason to love that person that way because that kind of love has nothing to do with reason. It has everything to do with our discovery that our wholeness, the quality of life we call eternal, depends upon our serving the wholeness and welfare of every other person, even those we consider worthless and contemptible, as the Samaritan seemed to the lawyer. That happens when we discover our deep, human relationship with the Samaritans in our lives, and when we act on the basis of that relationship.

Twentieth-century theologian H. Richard Niebuhr helped me understand Christian love this way. To love someone is to value that person. It is to recognize that person as having an essential role in God’s unfolding creation, even if I have no idea what that role may be. It is to recognize that without that person, my own life would be essentially diminished. And it is to act toward that person accordingly. The test of our Christian faith, the determinant of whether we enter here and now into the eternal life we seek, is not do you love Jesus; rather, it’s do you love the Samaritan, do you love Judas, do you love the least lovable person in your life or in your community? And are you willing to act on the basis of that love?

Dr. Jonathan Daniels knew that kind of love. So did Corion Evans, and Robin Emmons, and Tawanda Jones, and Kakenya Ntaiya. And so do you. Deep in your heart you know it. Deep in your heart that love is who you are. And to live the eternal life you seek, what you have to do is uncage that love and let it be free. What you have to do is start living the eternal life you already possess Love the least lovable person you can find, someone living on the fringe of society, at the edge of rejection, the one you’ve had every reason to dismiss. Then you will know the abundant life Jesus offers.

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