Being a Neighbor

Luke writes (10:25-37), “25And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26[Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ 27And [the lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ 28And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’ 29But [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” 

Due to the lawyer’s response in v. 27, he knows the letter, but not the spirit, of loving God and neighbor. He, upon hearing Jesus’ instruction, asks, “Who is my neighbor?” And the question is significant because 1st century Jewish culture severely limited the scope of “neighbor” to Jewish society. So the lawyer believes – falsely – he fulfills God’s second greatest commandment by loving people identical to his cultural or religious status. But the lawyer’s “love,” in reality, is a facade for hate and prejudice. You see, the lawyer’s question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but “Who is not my neighbor?” Jesus, however, through the Good Samaritan parable, teaches the neighbor concept extends beyond people who look, think, or act like us. 

The lawyer’s question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but “Who is not my neighbor?”

In the parable, a Samaritan helps a person in desperate need after the Jewish Priest and Levite ignore the beaten and robbed individual, but the lawyer – who Jesus is talking to – doesn’t appreciate the Samaritan’s prominent and compassionate role. Being half-Jewish, Samaritans suffered cultural and religious discrimination from the “pure” Jewish people. But to be clear, the difference Jesus highlights is not one of ethnicity, but compassion. The Priest and Levite apathetically passed by and were intentionally passive, but the Samaritan lovingly cared and sacrificially acted.

Jesus, through the parable, teaches the issue is not the identity of our neighbors (notice we know nothing about the person the Samaritan helped). In contrast to the lawyer’s definition of neighbor – people like him – Jesus defines neighbor as everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion, and other cultural, economic, and political boundaries. Everyone is our neighbor. So we shouldn’t be concerned with who we love: we love all people. Instead we need to focus on being a loving neighbor towards the diverse group of people surrounding us. And the first step in loving our neighbor is to value all people as individuals of worth.

If people of wealth asked Jesus, “Who is our neighbor?” it would be the parable of the good beggar. If political conservatives surrounded Jesus, it would be the parable of the good liberal. If Jesus traveled here in the states, it would be the parable of the good immigrant. If Jesus preached to modern Christians, it would be the parable of the good atheist. And if Jesus talked to a crowd of straight, white, males, then it’d be the parable of the non-white gay, trans, or gender-fluid individual. 

And if you (and I) experience tension while reading the above paragraph, then we’re missing the point. It’s not about the identity of who we love, but being a loving person to all. Jesus loved, not just tolerated, not just superficially “accepted”, not just nicely kept his distance, he truly, sacrificially, selflessly loved the rejects, the outcasts, the people his society considered the “worst of the worst” or “untouchable.” So picture the rejects and outcasts of our society and ask, “What would Jesus do?” He’d love, not from a sanitized distance, but from within a messy closeness.

If Jesus preached to modern Christians, it would be the parable of the good atheist

We shouldn’t ask Jesus, “Who is exempt from my love?” God commands us to love all people. We are sent, not to our comfortable, cookie-cutter, homogeneous cultural bubble, but to individuals different than ourselves. If we’re not reaching across the aisle, crossing cultural boundaries, or talking to people with different beliefs to express God’s love through compassionate service and gospel proclamation, then we’re failing to love God. 

What are your thoughts?

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