June 28, 1998

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:27,29

Have you ever set a trap for someone, only to end up getting caught in it yourself? You say something to make yourself look good and someone else look bad, but somehow it gets turned around and you’re the one who looks bad. Not fun, is it? And it’s worse yet if you try to talk your way out of it and end up digging yourself into an even deeper hole. The harder you try to make yourself look good, the worse it gets. You put your foot in your mouth, and then, instead of blushing and admitting you blew it, you open your mouth and insert the other foot.

This foot-in-mouth problem is especially troublesome if you consider yourself an expert on things. When you’re an expert, you don’t question others to gain insight from them; you figure you already know all the answers. You question others only to test them and see if they measure up to your standards and to embarrass them if they don’t. But if your plan backfires, if the question somehow gets turned around and you fail your own test and can’t meet your own standards, you feel pretty cheap.

That’s what happened to an expert in biblical law who tried to put Jesus on the spot. This man thought he had religious matters figured out and nailed down, and he thought it was time somebody tested that young rabbi, Jesus, to show what he was made of. So the expert in the law stood up and asked Jesus a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He made it sound like a sincere, personal question about how he could earn the right to live forever with God. But the Bible says in Luke 11 that he was simply testing Jesus, and Jesus knew it.

Rather than giving a direct reply, Jesus turned things around and answered a question with a question. “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

Jesus knew that the man’s question, which sounded so sincere and spiritual, was self-oriented and self-defeating. In his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the expert assumed that heaven was something he could earn for himself, something he would deserve if he worked hard enough. The only question was what he should work on. This man had no idea of salvation as God’s loving free gift to sinners who trust his mercy. “Okay,” said Jesus, in effect. “If you want to play that game, fine. We’ll play by the rules you’ve chosen. What must you do to inherit eternal life? You’re the expert; you tell me! As you see it, how does biblical law answers the question?”

The expert replied, “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 ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” If you love God perfectly and totally and love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself, then you have keep the law completely, you are without sin, and you do indeed have the right to live forever. That’s what you must do to inherit eternal life.

But who actually does that? Does anyone love God totally? No. But if we think we need to earn eternal life, we might try to convince ourselves that our love for God is perfect, or at least good enough. As for loving our neighbor, we have to admit that there are people we don’t love much at all. In fact, some of them we ignore or even hate. How do we justify ourselves in that case?

Well, if I’m clever enough, maybe I can find a loophole. What if those people I ignore or hate can’t be counted as neighbors but only as strangers or enemies? In that case, when the Bible commands me to love my neighbor, it’s not talking about people who don’t qualify as my neighbor, and it’s okay for me not to love them. That’s how the expert in the law tried to make himself look good. When Jesus said that if he wanted to save himself, all he needed to do was love God and his neighbor perfectly, the man shot back, “And who is my neighbor?”

Once again Jesus answered the question with a question, but this time he asked his question only after telling a story.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So, too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'”

“Which of these three [Jesus asked] do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”  (Luke 10:30-37)

What a turnaround! If you’re an expert in biblical law trying to figure out who qualifies as your neighbor and has a right to your love, the first people you think of (outside your own family) are the priests and their religious assistants, the Levites. These people–of the same race, the same interests, and the same standards– would surely qualify as neighbors. On the other hand, the last people you want to count as your neighbors are the Samaritans. You see them as low income, uneducated half-breeds with off-center religious beliefs. They’re a group with whom your own group has had an ongoing feud. Yes, indeed, if you’re an expert sitting in a comfortable lecture hall deciding whom you should consider a neighbor deserving of your love, the priests and Levites are in; the Samaritans are out.

But just suppose you’re not an expert in a lecture hall. Suppose you’ve just been robbed and savagely beaten. You have no money and you may die if someone doesn’t have mercy on you and love you. What does that do to the whole neighbor question? Suddenly it’s not a question of who is most like me in wealth or education or racial background or religious opinions. It’s not a matter of who qualifies for a place in my elite circle of neighbors. It’s a question of who will help me when I’m helpless, lift me up when I’m down, offer first aid when I’m wounded, and pay for me when I am penniless. Whoever does that is obviously the neighbor to me.

Just imagine how small the expert in the law must have felt. He asked his clever question, “But who is my neighbor?” in an attempt to justify himself with the idea that some people don’t qualify as neighbors or deserve love. But instead of justifying himself, he condemned himself. The very fact that he had asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” showed he had the same mentality as the priest and Levite who steered clear of helping someone they didn’t want to see as their neighbor.

When Jesus told of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan and then asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” the expert must have blushed and dropped his eyes and scuffed his foot nervously. There was only one answer he could give, but even then he couldn’t bear to say “the Samaritan.” It was just too hard to use the word “Samaritan” and the word “neighbor” in the same sentence. So he mumbled, “The one who had mercy on him.”

The expert knew God’s command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but he wanted to limit love by getting a narrow definition of neighbor. Jesus, however, shifted the focus to the phrase as yourself. What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? It means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially someone in desperate need, and asking whom you’d consider a neighbor if you were in that predicament and how you’d want to be treated. As Jesus put it in the Golden Rule, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

If you’re in your armchair in the ivory tower, figuring out formulas for how to earn eternal life, you may be smart enough to see that the greatest commands in God’s law are to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. But you misunderstand those commands if you see them as a ways to earn points with God and merit eternal life and if you try to keep your definition of neighbor narrow so that you can congratulate yourself on meeting God’s standard and loving the people you’re supposed to love.

If, however, you know the God of Jesus Christ, you won’t try to earn your way into God’s favor. You’ll admit that you are a sinner. You’ll admit that you have failed over and over to love God as you should. You’ll admit that instead of loving others, all too often you’ve tried to come up with excuses for your lack of love. And having admitted your sinful selfishness, you will cast yourself entirely on God’s mercy and love, counting on him to be kind to you and give you the help you need, the help you don’t deserve, the help you’ll never be able to repay. Only then can you make a real beginning of loving God in glad response to his love for you, and only then can you begin to love your neighbor freely as God has loved you.

If you ask with the expert, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the answer at one level is, “Love God and your neighbor perfectly.” If you could do that, you’d be in perfect spiritual health and you’d live forever. But can you? Can you love God and your neighbor perfectly? On your own you have no more chance of doing that than a bleeding, unconscious, helpless, penniless person has of picking himself up, healing his own wounds, and paying his own bills. Sin and Satan have beaten you up, destroyed your spiritual health, and robbed you of anything that can pay your bills with God. Only when Jesus comes to you, saves your life, heals your wounds by his own blood, lifts you up, carries you to safety, and pays the price you can’t pay yourself–only then are you able to live and love.

Now, the story of the Good Samaritan isn’t first of all an allegory picturing what Jesus has done to save us. The main point of the story is what it means to be a neighbor to others. Still, the fact remains that loving others and helping them freely, regardless of whether they have a right to it, regardless of the danger or cost to ourselves, regardless of whether they can repay us, is based on having first been loved that way ourselves by Jesus. “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is the product of “Do to others as Jesus has already done to you.”

Once you stop trying to earn eternal life yourself, you can also stop making excuses. Trust God to justify you through faith in Christ, and you can stop dreaming up ways to justify yourself. God himself has come to be our neighbor. He didn’t stay away or pass by us on the other side of the road. Instead, he came close and gave us all the help we need at enormous cost to himself. So trust him for eternal life. Love him with your whole being. And then love others, not as a way of earning his love, but as a way of sharing the same kind of love he has shown you.

Don’t ask the expert’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Ask instead, “Whose neighbor am I?” Jesus’ asked, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” and so we must ask, Who is a neighbor to victims of crime and abuse? Who is a neighbor to people with AIDS? Who is a neighbor to the hungry? Who is a neighbor to people who have been ruined financially? Who is a neighbor to the homeless? Who is a neighbor to people in prison? Who is a neighbor to those who are persecuted and picked on? Who is a neighbor to lonely folks who have no one? Who is a neighbor to those in nursing homes? Who is a neighbor to the terminally ill? Who is a neighbor to those in despair?

If I were a crime victim, if I had AIDS, if I were hungry, if I were penniless or homeless, if I were in prison, if I were persecuted or lonely, if I were dying or in despair, whom would I consider as a neighbor to me? Jesus calls me to put myself in the shoes of such people and then do for them as I would want done for me. Jesus calls me to make myself a neighbor to anyone I meet who is in need. He calls me to love my neighbor as myself.

I can’t do that perfectly, but through the power of God’s love, I can at least make a beginning. And each day I can pray that Jesus will make me more and more a channel of his peace and love.

The way of Jesus is to love even where love has not been earned. That is utterly different from the way of selfishness, which is to love only those who have earned our love, to ignore those who’ve never done anything for us, and to hate those who hate us. That’s the thinking that lay behind the religious expert’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” If you can divide the world into neighbors, strangers, and enemies, then it’s okay to love the neighbors, neglect the strangers, and hate the enemies.

But Jesus smashes all the walls with which we divide people and tells us to love even our enemies and count them among the neighbors God tells us to love. Jesus makes this plain in the Sermon on the Mount when he declares: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). After all, says Jesus, your heavenly Father showers blessings on good and bad people alike. If you belong to God, you should do the same. If you love only those who love you, what is so special about that? Even godless pagans do that much! If God is your Father, says Jesus, then be different. Be like your Father, and love like your Father. Love even your enemies.

When Jesus says that “Love your neighbor as yourself” means loving even your enemies and doing to other what you would have them do to you, he isn’t adding something brand new to the Old Testament law. Some of Jesus countrymen took the statement “Love your neighbor” to mean it was okay to hate your enemy, but that’s not what the law said. On the contrary, Old Testament law said, “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it” (Exodus 23:4-5). The details may be different for most of us–ox and donkey problems don’t affect modern city folks–but the principle is the same. When your enemy has a problem, help him and show him love. Don’t say, “It serves him right” and walk the other way.

When we live as children of God, we must forget our grudges against enemies, and we must also get rid of indifference and prejudice toward strangers and foreigners and people of other races. Again, this clear message of Jesus’ gospel was already stated in Old Testament law. There the Lord told the Israelite people, “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would a fellow Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves” (Leviticus 19:33-34 TEV).

If you find it hard or impossible to love enemies or strangers, here’s a question for you: Does your love depend on people around you or God within you? Are your actions based on what other people have done to you or what Jesus is doing through you? If you’re an ordinary, selfish worldling, you will let fear, prejudice, anger, and indifference dictate whom you love and whom you hate, whom you help and whom you ignore. In relation to strangers, you figure, “What have they ever done for me? I don’t owe them anything?” In reaction to enemies who have been nasty toward you, you figure, “I’ll do to them as they’ve done to me.” But if your love is based on God within you and Jesus working through you, you think, “Now, if I had that person’s problem, I wouldn’t want others to say, ‘Serves him right! That’s his problem, not mine.’ No, if I were in his shoes, I’d want help. And that exactly what I’m going to do–help this person.”

If you’re only required to love the person close to your heart, and you’re free to hate or ignore others, then it might be important to figure out, “Who is my neighbor?” But once you know Jesus’ full teaching to love strangers and enemies as well as friends and family, then the question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but “How can I be a neighbor even to those who’ve never been neighborly toward me?”

Jesus won’t let me put people in different boxes labeled “enemies,” “strangers,” or “neighbors” and treat people based on which box I’ve put them in. That may be the natural thing to as a self-centered sinner, but it’s not the thing to do if Jesus owns me and his Holy Spirit lives in me, flooding my heart with the love of God. As a Christian, if I want to do any labeling, I must simply label myself “neighbor” and then be neighborly to anyone I encounter–neighborly to friends, family, people down the street, and fellow countrymen; and neighborly also to the enemy, the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee.

If I still want to ask “Who is my neighbor?” the answer is: My neighbor is anyone I encounter along life’s road–and I don’t have the option of crossing to the other side of the road to avoid someone I’d rather not love or help. Who is my neighbor? Anyone who is in need, who’s been wounded by the attacks of others or by troubles of various kinds or even by his own sin and slavery to Satan. My neighbor is anyone I come across who needs me to be a neighbor and show loving concern.

This love which makes me a neighbor to all I meet is the fruit of the love God showed me when Jesus became a neighbor to me even when I was still an enemy of his and a foreigner to his kingdom. My neighbor love is also evidence that I love the Lord who has loved me and that my love for him is real and not just a vague fantasy. The Bible sums it all up when it says,

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth… 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” (1 John 3:16-18; 4:19-21).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.