In a book I’m reading about different cultures, the authors describe three concentric circles that represent how people within those cultures view the other people around them. The center of all the circles is the individual. Around him, in the first circle, are his family and his close friends. For people in this circle, he has a high degree of loyalty and obligation. He will do for them what he will do for no other, because he loves them or because he has a strong value for family and friends.
In the middle circle are people he deals with frequently. They aren’t close enough to him to be in the inner circle, but he sees them enough to keep him honest. Others in this circle are people with power and influence. With either group, he knows that if he mistreats someone in this circle, he’s liable to earn reciprocal mistreatment because he’ll have to interact with them again tomorrow or the next day. While he may not treat them well because of a strong value for what’s right, he will at least treat them well because of their ability to influence his surroundings.
In the outer circle are strangers (or at least supposed strangers) that he interacts with only once or infrequently enough to maintain a degree of anonymity with them. It also includes those he might interact with frequently but who have no authority or power to make things difficult for him if he mistreats them. These include people on the highway and people he passes in the supermarket, telemarketers and waitresses, hired help and customer service representatives, salespeople and pharmacists (that one’s for my pharmacist-friend).
He doesn’t have to treat these people well, because there is little (if anything) they can do about it. Either his anonymity or his position of power in relation to these people protects him. It doesn’t always work. The person he cut off in traffic could pull out a gun, or the waitress could dump soup in his lap or the pharmacist could spike his meds…but since most of us are reluctant to go to these lengths, he’s pretty safe playing the odds.
The authors of the book say this happens in certain cultures, but can’t we all identify with the three circles? Who hasn’t told off a telemarketer or practiced a little “road righteousness” with the guy who wouldn’t let you in the turn lane? Aren’t these circles fairly universal?
But this is a problem for the Christian. It’s not okay for a Christian to treat people differently because they are in the third circle. We are called to treat everyone with love and respect – even telemarketers, even neighbors who park in front of our house every day, even busboys and even slow-as-molasses pharmacists (bless their hearts). Among the people Christ specifically tells us to show love and kindness to are the poor, the powerless, the untouchable, the despised, the alien, the widow, the orphan – all people who would usually fit into our third circle. We are even told to “love [our] enemies,” who might deserve their own circle outside everyone else’s. A paragraph later, Jesus says,
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.” (Luke 6:32-33)
What He’s saying is that if we do everything just like the world does it, no one will ever notice. It’s easy to go with the current, but it doesn’t point people to Christ. It’s only when we start swimming upstream of human nature that people stop and wonder. When we start showing supernatural (because that’s where the power to do it comes from) grace and love for even those who have no power or authority or claim to connection with us, people will want to know why.
Make an effort to love your third circle today. It might be the best sermon you ever preach.