James G. Somerville is pastor of Wingate Baptist Church and adjunct professor of religion and philosophy at Wingate (North Carolina) University.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 22-29, 1998, p. 429, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The love Jesus shows his disciples is the love we are called to show others.
On February 19, 1998, a car sped across the grassy median of Interstate 95 near West Palm Beach into southbound traffic, then back into the northbound lanes. At least three people reported seeing a woman throw her infant son through the driver’s side window. When questioned by police, Krisann Haddad said she would "rather have her child dead than in this world."
We are shocked that a mother would try to take the life of her own child. Normally, it is just the opposite: a mother will lay down her own life rather than see her child come to any harm. In I Kings 3:16-18, Solomon, the wise king of Israel, depends on that truth to settle a dispute between two mothers.
One of them relates the story: she and the other woman were living in the same house. They gave birth to sons within days of each other. One night the other woman discovered that her child had died, took the first woman’s living child from her arms and replaced him with her dead son. The first woman tells the king, "When I rose in the morning to nurse my son I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne." The king is asked to settle the case. Who is the real mother? How can he tell? By testing the strength of love.
"Bring me a sword," he says calmly, and when he proposes to divide the child and give half to each mother the real mother protests, "Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!" But the other mother coolly retorts, "It shall be neither yours nor mine; divide it" (notice the language: the real mother refers to her son as "the living boy," the other woman twice refers to him as "it"). "Give the first woman the living boy," Solomon says, his voice full of sympathy, "do not kill him. She is his mother." How did he know? Her true identity was revealed by her love.
After Judas goes into the physical and spiritual darkness of the night in John 13, Jesus turns to his remaining disciples and, like a mother on her deathbed, says, "Little children, I am with you only a little longer."
You can almost imagine a mother bidding her children good-by. Gathered around her bed in a crumbling farmhouse, the younger ones, wide-eyed, clutch cornshuck dolls and wipe their noses on their sleeves. The older ones try to be brave, but are unable to keep an occasional tear from spilling and washing wet tracks down their dirty cheeks.
"Little children," says Jesus, "you will look for me, but where I am going you cannot come.
Even the youngest ones sense that something is dreadfully wrong. The tears begin to flow freely. The baby drops his rattle and begins to wail.
"I give you a new commandment," Jesus says, "that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."
With a brave smile and a trembling voice, the mother says: "I won’t be around to take care of you much longer. You will have to take care of each other. I want you to be good to each other, watch out for each other and most of all, love each other. Promise?"
"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples," Jesus concludes, making his most important point yet, "if you have love for one another."
Just as Solomon was able to discern the true identity of a mother by her love for her child, so will the world be able to identify the true disciples of Jesus by their love for one another.
This is a serious matter, with serious implications. This means that if the disciples of Jesus squabble over doctrine, over decisions, over property, over power, then people everywhere -- looking at them -- will shake their heads and say, "They must not be real disciples." As the old song insists, "They will know we are Christians by our love."
But they will also assume some things about Jesus if we don’t love. In the small town where I live people often blame parents for the way their children turn out. If the children are mean or rude or disrespectful, the leading citizens of the community will cluck their tongues and say, "The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree."
So, for the sake of our identity and Jesus’ reputation, we should love one another, and we should do it in a certain way. Jesus has said to his disciples, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." He does not mean the feigned affection that sometimes passes for love in the church, but the genuine article -- the kind of love Jesus has always shown for his disciples, the kind of love that a mother normally shows for her children, the kind of love that stands ready to lay down one’s life for the other.
Until we love like that, we cannot throw stones at Krisann Haddad; none of us is without sin. How many times have we "thrown out" our fellow disciples, the little children of Jesus? Or, like the woman who stood before Solomon, called for the sword that divides Christ’s church? May the motherly words of Jesus pierce us to the heart and move us to new levels of sacrifice and love.