Sometimes Sunday school does not move in the way you expect. Last week, the lesson was about forgiveness. I asked them if they could remember some time when somebody did something that made them feel bad. One youth told how a teacher had unjustly singled him out for humiliation in the class. Some recounted how a bully had abused them.
Then I asked them if the bad feeling was the same today. They all agreed that it was.
I suggested that the only way to recover from the bad feeling is to forgive. None of them were willing to forgive.
I told them that the reason why they still feel the bad feeling is that the injustice done to them leaves a debt. The person who wronged them owes them something to make it right. I told them that they will never collect payment on this debt. That the original hurt is long gone, and the bad feeling today is from the unpaid debt. The way to heal the hurt is to give up the debt that is owed to them.
Still none of them were willing to release the debt.
To make his point, one youth said that if the person who wronged him were to get cancer. If he were to lose an eye, an arm, a leg, lose his job and be homeless on the street, at that time, he would still not forgive him.
I decided that the lesson wouldn’t be a success that day. I was pleased that they could be honest with me. I knew that this honesty was necessary if they were ever to learn. On that Sunday, the lesson was a loss, but the possibility for the future was still open.
Fast forward one week and the new lesson is about love. I read to them Matthew 22:34-40. In that scripture, Jesus says in part, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I told them that this does not say that you should love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. It says that you should love your neighbor with the same kind of love as you have for yourself. I told them about a couple of friends of mine. They were married for several years and had no children. They had dogs and loved them. One told me that if his house was on fire, he would run into his house to try to save his dogs. I told our youth that my friend may love his dogs as much as himself because he would risk his life for his dogs, but the love for his dogs is a different kind of love than what he has for himself because he separates the dogs from himself as a different creature than himself.
Next I told them about an experience that I had when I was in high school. The year was probably 1970. I was a member of Sun Valley First Baptist church. The pastor and his wife thought highly of Bob Jones University. They arranged to have some representatives from the school come to the church hoping that some of the high school students in the church would want to attend classes there. At that time, Bob Jones University excluded students of African ancestry. Also there were strict rules of conduct for the students. They were not allowed to date people of a different race and romantic relationships of such were grounds for expulsion from the school.
These rules seemed wrong to me. I questioned them and they said that there are several fine black colleges that black people can attend. They said that they simply believed in a separation of the races.
I was an unsophisticated high school student. I knew that the segregation that they practiced was wrong, but I wasn’t able to show how. Today I would tell them about what Jesus said and insist that if you segregate a group of people from yourself, you make it impossible to love them as yourself because the foundation of the segregation is a belief that they are inherently different.
All the youth accepted this teaching as obviously true, but I knew that this lesson was too far removed from their personal situations to be of use to them. I needed to bring the lesson closer to their world.
I told them that if you see a homeless person beside the road, you should not say, “If he would just get a job, he would have money to pay rent. Maybe he is lazy.” You should put yourself in his circumstance so you can love him as yourself. You should say, “If I lost my job, I wouldn’t have money to pay rent. I could be in the same situation as him and maybe luck is the real reason why it has never happened to me.”
A couple of our youth spoke up and said that is exactly what they do. That is what their mother has taught them.
One of our youth asked if this relates to loving your enemies. I answered, “yes”, but didn’t have the time to explore that. I was pleased how that related to the lesson from the week before. It gave me a new way of approaching the lesson on forgiveness that might be more successful.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to tell them how my interpretation of Matthew is not shared by most Christians. Most believe that Jesus meant that we should love as much, not the same way. Most have not considered how loving the same way means tearing down mental walls that we build to let us believe that we are inherently different from some people.
These two lessons illustrate why I teach Sunday school. I may learn as much as the students in a Sunday school lesson because the students may turn the lesson into a realm that I have not considered.