Who is my neighbor? That can be a scary question to ask. And there is more than one way to ask that question. One is positive, and one is not.
In the context of a larger discussion on keeping the Law (Torah) and gaining eternal life, an expert in the law posed this question to Jesus (Luke 10). Jesus said that the way to receive eternal life was to: “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.” Both are extremely difficult, and people fail miserably at both. Our failure to keep the law is why Jesus came to reconcile us to God.
Unfortunately, instead of asking Jesus how someone could ever live up to that standard, the law expert tried to find some wiggle room. He asked, “Who is my neighbor?” with the goal of limiting the scope of the task. Maybe he thought “neighbor” meant close kin, friends, and people in directed proximity. Certainly, he did not expect what Jesus was about to say.
Jesus told a story that illustrated the great width, length, and scope of the word “neighbor.” As Jesus began to share the parable of the Good Samaritan, he didn’t identify the background of the traveler. As is natural, the law expert probably envisioned someone like himself: Jewish, religious, striving to keep the letter of the Law. I’m sure he empathized with one who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. However, the first two people who saw the injured man did not do anything to help. Jesus identified these two as a priest and Levite … people very much like the expert in the law.
When Jesus identified the one who came to the injured man’s rescue, the law expert had to be startled: a Samaritan! The Jews and Samaritans did not get along for both religious and ethnic reasons. It had to make him angry that Jesus placed an enemy as the hero of the story about being a neighbor. At the end, Jesus simply asked which one acted like a neighbor to the injured man. The law expert said that the one who showed mercy did the right thing. Notice that he didn’t even utter the word “Samaritan.”
Jesus then told the expert, “Go and do likewise.”
To follow Jesus means to place a lot of people into the “neighbor” category. Not just to tolerate them, but to love them. That is difficult. It goes against our nature. Remember the words of the character in Robert Frost’s Mending Wall; “Good fences make good neighbors.” That is how we are prone to think. I will mind my own business and not get involved.
In recent years I have seen a growth in un-neighborly behavior in social media and in the public square. I see people placing those who hold different political ideologies, religious beliefs, or have a different ethnic background in an “other,” or “outsider” category. These “others” are not viewed as “neighbor.” We call them names and mock them rather than sharing the Gospel with love. Dear people of the church, we MUST stop doing this!
Let’s all take a moment to ask the question in a positive way, “Jesus, who is my neighbor?” Let’s ask with sincere, teachable hearts; then reread the parable of the Good Samaritan. When we see “Samaritan,” think about the group of groups of people we struggle to love. What are Jesus’ instructions? If we do not “go and do likewise” … if we do not view “others” as “neighbors,” we are not following Jesus’ Great Commission.
Gary D. Myers is the director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological. This post was originally published at www.garydmyers.com.