Microscopic Philanthropy (1 John 4:19-21)

Love begins at home, or it never begins at all.

In the fourth chapter of Bleak House, Charles Dickens narrates the arrival of Esther Summerson at the home of Mrs. Jellyby. Although her house is ramshackle and her children clothed in tattered garments, Mrs. Jellyby’s best time and efforts are spent organizing help for “the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.” Mrs. Jellyby is a fine example of what Dickens calls “Telescopic Philanthropy,” charity for strangers far away combined with neglect of people near and dear.

First John 4:19-21 offers a different model of charity, what I would call “microscopic philanthropy,” the love of nearest and dearest first.

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

When John used the word brother, he was not referring primarily to one’s biological sibling. Rather, he was referring to one’s spiritual kin. Brother and sister were the terms early Christians used to refer to one another. This usage reinforced the unity and equality of Christians with one another. They were all siblings in the same divine family. They never called anyone “father” because God alone was their “Father in heaven.”

By describing the church as a family, the early Christians expanded the scope of love beyond kith and kin. Anyone could become a brother or sister, regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity, or class. Grace excluded no one from God’s family. Faith included (potentially) everyone.

In that sense, the early church universalized the concept of love. Love was not merely owed to one’s family, clan, tribe, and nation, it was owed to everyone. But the early church avoided Mrs. Jellyby’s “telescopic philanthropy” by insisting that we love everyone within our direct line of sight. “Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

Love begins at home, or it never begins at all.

Unfortunately, our world is filled with people like Mrs. Jellyby. Paul Johnson’s description of intellectuals could describe them. “Almost all intellectuals profess to love humanity and to be working for its improvement and happiness. But it is the idea of humanity they love, rather than the actual individuals who compose it. They love humanity in general rather than men and women in particular.”

To love truly and christianly means paying attention to that annoying, old, hymn-singing curmudgeon who sits in the pew in front of you on Sunday mornings. It means accepting the immodestly dressed, gum-chewing, iPod-listening teenage girl who attends your youth group. It means providing for the drug-addicted, chronically homeless young family whose lives are lived uncertainly from meal to meal. We love humanity in general by loving particular humans.

And as we love those near and dear, God expands our vision so that we can love those far away as well.

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