Who is My Neighbor?

CC BY-NC, More Good Foundation, Flickr

CC BY-NC, More Good Foundation, Flickr

When Jesus was cornered about the significance of the law of God, he delivered what I consider a cataclysmic redefinition of spiritual devotion. Peculiar, however, is the question that was put to him and how it is rendered in each of the synoptic gospels. Matthew has it as the greatest commandment. Mark showcases the most important one. Luke divulges what one must do to inherit eternal life. Convincing arguments could be made for the differences based on the biographer and audience. Whatever the reasons, Jesus discloses a poignant message about the life of faith and its interrelation with the people around us.

“‘Love the Lord your God,'” he says, “‘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'” (Luke 10:27). Additionally, what Luke provides that Matthew and Mark do not is the riveting parable of the Samaritan helper. Jesus tells this story in exposition of his initial response after his interrogator presses him further: “Who is my neighbor?”

The Purpose of Life

“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 travelled, 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” (Luke 10:30-34).

I won’t attempt to exegete the text and will trust your knowledge about the significant aspects of the story. But drawing from Jesus’s answer to the question—and only part of what I could hope to write on his exposition—I discover his implication that the love of God must be the context of all our action. Everything we do in the life of faith must be accomplished having God as our object of affection and, foremost, be a service to him.

So no matter how happy or sad, relaxed or urgent life becomes for us, God should remain the spur to our progress and answer any curiosity about how we bear the hardships we may face. Where his love supports us, our love renders all to him in return. In good times, we live with gratitude; in bad times, we trust that he foresaw them and provides us the strength to persevere.

This concept extends to how we treat the people around us. Another point from Jesus’s profound statement is that there is a real interrelationship between loving God and loving our fellow man. I am convinced that Jesus’s explanation is a wrapped package on the purpose of life itself—”All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

The full revelation of God seems to consist in enjoying the fellowship of our Creator and his gift of creation expressly witnessed in human relationship. It is the prize of humankind—the image of God in people—that lends our relationships incredible significance and possibility, especially among those who together fellowship with their God. Further, we can only understand some things about God and his ways as we peer in the faces of others and not necessarily those who treat us well and fit our image of what godliness might be.

What Being a Christian Means

The kingdom message, so revealing of God’s heart, comes into focus as we love God’s way by serving and cherishing and helping and empathizing, having lost sight of the particulars of whom we serve. In acting this way we acquaint ourselves with God’s character and against it measure the worth of our own human dignity, although we act simply by extending a hand toward another. Yet it is an act of worship to Jesus, the ultimate servant.

It has everything to do with the verdict of the sheep and the goats: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:35-36).

Jesus’s words are bold and lean—how do we ever miss him? I hear in his teaching and my own experience with less-than-stellar individuals these words: You cannot be Christian on your own terms. It’s simply impossible. Christ, his kingdom message, and his example are the basis for our action. What these actually accomplish more often is the exposure of flaws in our profession of faith.

I find myself more and more vexed by those whose notion of living for God and being Christian is merely attending church religiously. These people can ‘do church’ and consider that they have done God a favor or appeased his anger or earned points on their spiritual progress chart, all of which is nothing more than buying indulgences! They think highly of their own spirituality and look down on those Christ calls them to serve. But nothing could be more reproachful to Jesus and his message.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies; to pray for those who persecute us; to bless those who curse us; to offer the other cheek; to leave our offering and make sure we’ve not caused an offense. But God, we pine, I don’t care anything about them! Look at how they treat me. You expect me to go help them out and wash their nastiness now that they’ve gotten what they deserve? Why? Besides, they’re not getting saved anyway—there’s nothing in it for me!

What we’ve usually missed in Christ’s words is a simple point: This is not about us. It is about God alone and that he’s gaining ground in us. We only reveal how low a priority faith is in our matters of judgment and decision; that the piety we wear on Sundays makes no practical difference beyond the pews we’ve sat on.

Serve Christ and Be Satisfied

When we have a real moment to make an impact for the kingdom (and non-believers know who the church folk are), we miss it big or take no further interest until there’s a spot for us to shine: “I led 50 people to Jesus on the mission trip!” or “Our church has won 500 souls to Christ so far this year!” On the contrary, it is the daily, seemingly insignificant opportunities that God is more concerned about with most of us.

The truth is, many people we will serve do not want to know God and will reject all offers of religion. Of course, we want folk to turn to Jesus, but our concern about “winning” people shouldn’t always be the aim. In fact, God may even be reprimanding us for a hyper-evangelicalism, our feeling that anything we do toward those who need help must be preachy and witnessing and converting. But this attitude can rob us from demonstrating the simple love that expects nothing in return.

So, for instance, if a person who always treated us badly that we help should, thereafter, continue to treat us disdainfully, our behavior toward them will remain genuine if it was first done in service to God. This is the safeguard that our actions are not lost and wasted. We err to forget that God is our sole audience and commands us, “Be me to them—period.” The problem for many of us, tragically, is that we’re not as Christian as we think we are.

Jesus finishes his discourse with a classy, in-your-face, moral self-assessment: “‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The experts in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise'” (Luke 10:36-43).

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