Love your neighbor as yourself.
Yeah I’ve heard that one before. If you’ve been to a church before or even near a church, or have even thought about church before you’ve heard those words.
It’s the kind of words that sound great on a coffee cup that you’d give to your grandma or on some wall art you’d find on Pinterest.
The problem with “love your neighbor as yourself” is that it’s the Christian version of “diet and exercise” in that we all agree that it’s a good idea but we’re not always great at doing it.
Who is my neighbor?
When the Bible talks about neighbors it doesn’t mean the people who actually live next door to you.
Jesus talks about this when he’s explaining what it means to love your neighbor in Luke 10:25-37.
Someone asks him who meets the qualifications for neighbor-hood. The strong implication of the story is that the person speaking to Jesus has a very narrow view of who is a neighbor. A neighbor to him is someone who looks like him, has the same ethnicity, is on the same economic level and spiritual level. His neighbor is the kind of person who he naturally gravitates to, who it’s natural to spend his time with.
When a traveling teacher like Jesus comes into town its a great opportunity then to confirm his bias.
When he asks the question “but who is my neighbor?” the response he hopes for is “A good Israelite who loves God!” That’s the response his hearers certainly expected.
Jesus’ response though is, to say the least, controversial.
The Good Samaritan
Jesus starts his story with a violent attack. Bandits beat up a Jewish man and leave him to die. Fortunately, some people walk by, but they don’t stop. Instead, they cross over to the other side of the road. Some of the people who passed by were religious leaders. Others were ordinary people.
Jesus actually makes a joke in this passage, but it’s easy for us to miss. The road he describes was a real path, and it was only a few feet wide. So there’s no “other side” of the road. Everyone would have needed to step over the bloody, dying man to get to their destinations.
None of them stop to help. Maybe because they can’t tell if he’s an Israelite or not. After all, they believed outsiders were a threat to their way of life. They can’t tell if helping him will increase their influence or hurt their influence, so it’s better to not risk it.
That alone would have been offensive to his hearers but he doubled down on the controversy. Because a hero comes down the dusty road on a donkey, and it’s the last person you would expect.
How to love your neighbor
Who is our hero-neighbor? A Samaritan. Now, these days, a Samaratin (or Good Samaritan thanks to this story) is how people describe a kind, generous person. But Samaratins are an ethnic-religious people group that still exist today.
In Jesus’ day, the people of Israel and Samaria were rivals with hate going both ways. Their shared beliefs did little to overcome their bitter differences. A few decades earlier the Samaritans disrupted a religious ritual on a Jewish holy day. But the Israelites certainly weren’t blameless in the conflict.
While modern comparisons don’t do it justice, the two nations existed in a sort of Cold War in the time of Jesus. They avoided and ignored each other at all costs. But Jesus didn’t align with old biases. Instead, he had a habit of embracing samaritans as equals.
So the Samaritan helps his enemy (the jewish man), gives him a ride to town, and pays for his care. Then Jesus asks one of his most brilliant and provoking questions.
“Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of bandits?”
Of course we know the answer. But the Israelite man didn’t want to say the word Samaritan. Instead, he says “the one who helped him”
Finding a better way
When we look at hate and violence in the world today it’s easy to see the lines people draw to decide who they care about and who they don’t. Lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, politics and religion create factions that wage war with one another whether online or in real life. We have teammates and opponents, comrades and enemies and we want to achieve victory at any cost.
But if what Jesus says is true then that means something radical is going on. Something different than the world is used to. It means that Jesus is calling us into a different view of the people who don’t look like us, think like us, or worship like us. He wants us to see them as neighbors, as our brothers and sisters, As people worthy of dignity, honor and respect.
That love for neighbor doesn’t get cancelled out during wartime, election years, or on social media. You don’t get a pass at loving your neighbor even when they insult you.
Instead you get to be different, to be greater, to be something different and unique in the world. A beacon of hope in a world that’s tired of fighting.
So think about the people who have opposing viewpoints, that the world is trying to convince you are your enemy and choose today to not let artificial lines deceive you into believing that you have to hate your enemies.
For more on caring for your neighbor, check out this post from the Bible Project.
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