Who is my neighbor?
When most of us think of our neighbor, we think of the person next door. Our neighbor is the guy we see mowing his lawn next to us, the girl in the dorm beside ours, or the single mom in the apartment above us. Neighbors are the type of people we lend a tool to, we borrow a cup of sugar from, and we complain about the HOA with (Am I the only one?). To be a good neighbor, then, is to be peaceful in the cul-de-sac, to smile and nod when you walk by, to volunteer to pick up their mail while they’re gone “if you’re feeling crazy”, and, in general, to be nice and gracious to the people nearest you.
But who does Jesus say our neighbor is? Have we considered that Jesus’s teachings on “neighboring” might be better than our own?
This is precisely the topic of conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus in Luke chapter 10. And as is so often the case in the scriptures, Jesus’s response to the lawyer’s question about neighbor-loving is quite different than what yours or mine would have been. He “tells it slant,” as Eugene Peterson would say.
The original topic of conversation between Jesus and the lawyer, before anything about neighbors, was actually about eternity, specifically how to inherit eternal life (10:25). Jesus reminds the lawyer of the commandment in Deuteronomy 6 to love the Lord and your neighbor. “Do this and you will live,” Jesus tells him (v28). The lawyer responds, not by questioning the law of God itself (who would do that?), but by digging into the technicalities of this commandment. “Yes, but who is my neighbor, Jesus?” Isn’t that so often how we operate? We know the truth, but, hey, maybe if I dig into the fine print of the terms and conditions, I could “justify myself” (v29) and my behavior before God!
Jesus proceeds to tell him a story about a man on a journey between Jerusalem and Jericho. (This is the story of the Good Samaritan, a story many of us are very familiar with.) As the story goes, a man was on a treacherous 17-mile journey notorious for robberies and dangerous cliffs and caves. He was beaten violently by robbers on this journey, yet had trouble finding help. Between the holy city of Jerusalem and the popular priestly enclave of Jericho, this route likely was frequented by priests. And, sure enough, one priest indeed did pass by this beaten and bruised man. But he did not stop to help. Neither did a Levite who passed by soon thereafter. Yet the third passer-by, a Samaritan man, did stop. The story tells us the Samaritan “had compassion” (v33). This word for compassion is the same word used to describe Jesus when he saw the crowds following him who were “like sheep without a shepherd” in Matthew 9. It is a word of deep affection. The Samaritan man felt for the broken man and proceeded to help him with his wounds, set him up at an inn, pay money out of pocket, and sacrifice much of his day. “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Jesus asked the lawyer. “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replied (Luke 10:37).
Jesus’s approach is brilliant. He responds to the lawyer not by simply giving him a definition of “neighbor” but by using a story to target his heart. He digs deep into the intent behind the lawyer’s question. Jesus essentially says, “The question for you is not who your neighbor is, but what type of neighbor you are?” He is positing that the reason the lawyer and, by extension you and I, do not love our neighbor is not because we don’t know who our neighbor is or have forgotten the commandments to love them, but because we are too broken on the inside to neighbor well. Jesus is saying, “Who is your neighbor, you ask? Well, I’ll get back to that. But first, what kind of neighbor are you, young lawyer?” Jesus is teaching us a lot about neighboring in just one short parable.
What can we learn from this? First of all, we see that Jesus is interested in our heart as it relates to our neighbor-loving, not our clever rhetorical abstractions. He knows we make excuses and would rather quibble about the definition of a neighbor, social justice, economic theories, or the role of the church than move to help those in need. Jesus knows we are messed up people. My heart is deeply deceptive and sinful. So is yours. Jesus is inviting us to become a certain kind of person by neighboring well, not just nailing the exam. He is inviting us to participate in our own transformation, not debate about information. How can we have compassion like the Samaritan? We need a new heart.
Second, we see a clear relationship in Jesus’s parable between neighbor, mercy, compassion, and the needy. Notice in this story that the neighbor is a stranger to the Samaritan. Yet the Samaritan was deeply moved and chose to become a neighbor in that moment. For us, this means that we can be neighbors beyond our block. There are countless neighborhoods in Chapel Hill and Durham that are below the poverty line. We are more mobile and connected than ever. Therefore our neighbors in need are nearer than ever. Notice the lawyer’s final response to Jesus: The neighbor was the one who showed him mercy (v37). Who is a true neighbor? One who shows mercy. Being a good neighbor and demonstrating mercy are inseparable imperatives in this story. Neighboring is not just continuing to lend your tools to the guy next door — don’t stop doing that — but it seems to be far, far more.
Third, Jesus makes a point to tell us a story that reaches across differences, specifically ethnic differences. The hero of this story is a Samaritan. Samaritans were an ethnic minority, often looked down upon by Jewish elites in that day. Yet he helped restore the wounds on a body that was different-looking than his. What an intimate thing for the Samaritan to do, getting mixed up with someone else’s blood and guts! Jesus told this story — in this way, in response to this question —for some purpose for you and me. It is not a cursory detail. As our church continues its journey on racial unity, we see yet another key text that can help show us the way forward.
Finally, the Samaritan offers holistic restoration. He cares for the man’s body, his finances, and his lodging, not just his spiritual needs or his soul. He gives the innkeeper his hard-earned money to house the beaten man, then tells the innkeeper he’ll come back to pay even more that he might owe! Brothers and sisters, we do not need to be fearful of practicing integrated, holistic neighboring to the poor and needy. Let us not “dis-embody” our work. Let us demonstrate our Gospel in mercy and service alongside our proclamation of it in word. Let us practice the whole gospel.
This is the work of Jesus, the work of mercy ministry. As a church, we want to take new steps forward together with you to serve the needs of the disinherited and marginalized. This is what my job is all about, too: loving and offering mercy to our neighbors in need with the gospel of our great Christ. Pray with me that God would do a great work. And join us as God brings His Kingdom on earth in Chapel Hill and Durham. Please email me if you want to continue a dialogue about “neighboring” in our cities and communities.