Recently I talked to the director of a Christian camp, who said something that has stuck in my head: “Christianity is relational, not religious.” I suppose that’s true of any religion, or really, any system of thought, that tries to answer the question, “How should we live?”

To me, the camp director’s remark means that in seeking to follow Jesus, I should do exactly that — look to how Jesus treated people and his teachings about what’s important as my model.

Though Jesus said in the Gospel that he had not come to take away any of the former law, he repeatedly asserted that showing compassion was more important than strict adherence to the law. Two examples come quickly to mind: the man with the withered hand whom he healed on the Sabbath (in the Temple, no less), and the woman taken in adultery, of whom he said, “let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Jesus taught that the greatest of all laws was to “love God with everything that’s in you,” and the second-greatest was to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is a re-formulation of the golden rule. It is easy for us to miss the power of his teachings, because we often don’t understand their context.

When he told the story of the good Samaritan, for example, his Jewish hearers would have thought of Samaritans as we might regard a tribe of cannibals – so foreign, so far removed from their own sense of morality that it was nonsensical to put “good” and “Samaritan” together. (Can you imagine a story about a “good cannibal”?)

And yet, in Jesus’ parable, it is this pariah who shows great kindness and generosity to the man lying beaten by the side of road, after the priest and the Levite, both of whom follow all the religious laws and are presumably ritually pure, pass by the victim on the other side of the road without showing the least concern for him.

The story is intended not only to show that “good Jews” do not have a corner on God’s favor, but also to shame the priestly classes and others who thought that by following all the ritual laws and observing the forms of religion they could obtain righteousness.

The message is, “You’ve become idolaters of religion, worshiping the forms, the texts, the trappings of worship itself, and forgetting the heart of your duty: to love God and your neighbor.” This is one of Jesus’ persistent themes throughout the Gospels.

Another theme is that anyone who turns to God in faith is welcomed by God. Jesus helps many people who are either on the edges of Jewish society or entirely outside it: the woman at the well (Samaritan), the Syro-Phoenician woman, the soldier Jairus (Roman), the woman with an issue of blood (ritually unclean), the 10 lepers (also unclean — and potentially contagious). And that’s just a partial list.

By this example, Jesus shows that God’s love is for everyone, especially the outcast and those at the bottom of the social order. He asserts that humility and faith outweigh rule-bound righteousness and having the right connections.

He makes the point more gently in the story of the rich young man. The youth earnestly desires Jesus to tell him how to obtain eternal life; he knows and has followed the requirements of his faith all his life. “You lack one thing,” says Jesus, “go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me.”

The young man goes away sadly, “for he had many possessions,” the story tells us. Jesus amplifies, “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” This is true, not because God doesn’t like rich people, but because too often, those who have much are owned by their possessions. To trade the security of affluence for total dependence on Jesus is a very hard choice to make.

Jesus argues about Scripture with various groups, but I can’t think of an instance where he quotes Scripture to condemn someone. Mostly, when he quotes Scripture, it is to justify something he’s doing that has been questioned, or to show that he is the fulfillment of earlier prophecy.

God’s love is so enormous, so overflowing, so profligate, it has scandalized the church for centuries. The One who made us loves us — all of us — and is infinitely more interested in drawing us into the divine life than in applying rules and labels to keep us out. Over and over in the Gospel, this is the message of Jesus.

When we find ourselves getting irritated at someone else for no good reason, or making an excuse for not helping, we should pause for just a moment and imagine ourselves in the other person’s place. For tomorrow, we could be. And allowing ourselves to be a blessing to someone else is one of the greatest blessings we can receive.

Yes, Christianity is relational. It is not about who’s in or out, and it’s not a list of things you can’t do or be. It’s about you and me and all of us allowing ourselves to be filled with the light and love of the Holy One and letting that light and love flood our aching world.