On being neighborly (Who do I have to love and how much?) Part 1 of 5ish

love your neighborWe cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men. Herman Melville

Neighborly: Characteristic of a good neighbor, especially helpful, friendly, kind, obliging, helpful, hospitable, civil, generous…

Right up there with “The Lord is my shepherd” is “Love your neighbor as yourself” as Top Ten Bible quotes. My musing about this one sent me to look up virtually all the passages about loving “neighbors” – some of them commonly known and others more obscure.

I’m going to give away my thesis now, to provoke you either to click over to something easier on the conscience or to proceed with caution. Warning! I might offend your American Christian individualism ideology by poking it with a sharp Scripture stick.

It’s clear to me that we’re all “neighbors.” We may not be “Facebook friends” and everyone might not live on our continent, but we’re all neighbors. We may not all speak the same language, have the same socioeconomic status, or have the same political priorities but we’re neighbors. Your neighbor is just as much the person without a house as the person in the house next door. H/she might have lice on their head or a $1000 fedora, but — Okay, you get it.

To love your neighbor is to love yourself, because your wellbeing and your neighbor’s are wrapped up together as one. As absurd as it might sound to the individualistic American ear, the Bible teaches that we are one. It’s no longer us and them; it’s just us – just us “neighbors.”

Just as most of us live houses or apartments fortressed with fences in order to designate what’s “ours” versus theirs, we’ve defined very particular parameters for the extent of our love.

He wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10

Like the rich young ruler we want to know who our neighbor is so that we won’t have to waste our love on those who don’t deserve it! We’re willing to love, but we either insist on reserving the right to choose the neighbors who most merit our love or we want to choose the amount of love we’re willing to dole out incrementally based on proximity. In other words, we’ll say, “Well, I don’t have to love someone that doesn’t live near me or live like I live.” Or we’ll posit, “I love the people from other places, but of course not in the same way I love those who live on my block.”

It’s easy to love our Christian brothers and sisters, though not so much when they don’t agree with us on the sacraments, the spiritual gifts, or style of worship. Everyone may not be your brother or sister in Christ, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor. We’d all agree that everyone in the world is beloved of God (Psalm 145: 9, 17) – “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” – so doesn’t it stand to reason then that everyone, if not a brother or sister in the strictest sense of the word, is at the very minimum our neighbor?

Some of our neighbors live farther away than others, have varying socioeconomic privileges, don different skin colors, and speak languages other than our own, nevertheless, they’re all our neighbors. They may live on another continent on top of a garbage dump or in a castle, but they’re we’re still neighbors. They might believe in Jesus, in Muhammad, or in nothing at all, but we’re all still quite connected by our humanity. I won’t meet them all or ever hope to see them all but they’re – you guessed it – my neighbors.

If that’s true, then it follows that what I do in my house, on my block, in my city, in my country has to be tempered by how my life affects my neighbor’s lives. It’s not okay for me to fell the oak tree in my yard onto the roof of my next-door neighbor’s or jack hammer my driveway in the middle of the night. It’s just not neighborly. Now that we realize that neighborhood extends beyond the few houses within ear shot of our stereo or the addresses with the same street name as ours, and that what we do or refuse to do in our city, state, or country affects people as far away as another continent, we’re responsible for more than just us four and no more.

The guy who asked Jesus who his neighbor was – on the surface – a valid question. But he was really asking: “Who do I have to love? Which persons am I responsible to treat in a neighborly way?” Jesus’ answer was terribly provocative, but we’ll get to that later.

One of the things I noticed when I was flipping through the Bible looking for “neighbor” references was that it’s used several times in the Ten Commandments. For instance, we’re commanded not to lie to our neighbor, or covet our neighbor’s wife, our neighbor’s house, or any of his stuff. If we’re serious about knowing which people we have to love, and more than in just in the abstract, we have to admit that there’s no way that God’s commands about lying or coveting just relates to the people who go to our church or live on our street. In other words, it’s not okay to covet the wife of someone who comes from another neighborhood or lie to a person from another state or country! The anti-lying and no coveting laws are as universal as the “neighborhood” of humanity in which we live. From the very start God made it clear that our neighbors are everyone with whom we share the planet. Speaking of sharing, as your mother probably told you more than once, “You have to learn to share!”

My guess is that I’ve already lost a percentage of readers and by this paragraph’s end a number of others will have their sensibilities – so-called – offended and will drop off. But if it’s true that the parameters of our neighborhood includes everyone alive on the planet, then how can we in good biblically informed conscience…

…spend so much on our own creature comforts and neglect the basic needs of our neighbors who die by the millions of hunger relate causes or easily treatable diseases?

…consume more than our share of the worlds resources?

…blithely walk past the same homeless person everyday without even learning their name? Poor people have names to you know.immigration protest

…stand at our southern borders holding signs and shouting at our neighbors to go back “home” to bone-crushing poverty and drug cartel brutality?

Hmm. Not very neighborly. If you can stand it, Part 2 is on the way. 

I welcome any friendly pushback.


10 Replies to “On being neighborly (Who do I have to love and how much?) Part 1 of 5ish”

  1. I guess the basic question for me is… where do you draw the line? there has to be a line, no? If I give everything I have to my neighbor (or the poor), I will lose my car, job, house… and I may end up in worse shape than those I was trying to help. So where is the border between loving my neighbor and loving myself? (working on the assumption that I’ve got to love myself to some extent to be able to actually love others). I’ve seen terrible poverty, smelled it, sat around with people in it… but that’s the interesting bit…. the people were not necessarily poor, or unhappy. They just had less stuff than I did. But how important is stuff? It would have been offensive and inappropriate for me to call them poor. On the other hand, it would have been wrong for me not to give them something I had that they needed more than i did. Is there not a difference between giving something to someone who asks or needs it Vs. someone who just tries to take it form you? Random thoughts, i am still trying to work it all out without allowing misguided guilt to derail my good intentions. I don’t quite agree with everything you’ve said. And now I sit, waiting for the lightning bolt to zap me into oblivion! 🙂


    1. Since disagreeing with me always involves a bolt from the sky, I’d get inside if I were you! 🙂

      It’s definitely a challenge for us to know how to be generous in a world of inequities. I have no formula for doing it, and though it may seem like a copout, for me, I just try to trust the Spirit to show me who and when and how to help. That said, with my bent toward selfishness I do have to be not only attentive to him, but to the realities about poverty. While I don’t think we’re all supposed to have exactly the same amount of money and stuff, I do think God never intended for the disparity to be so vast. It seems, from the life and teaching of Jesus as well as the OT Laws (Sabbaths, Jubilees, gleanings from the fields, tithes for the poor, etc) that he expects the gap to be much narrower among “neighbors.”

      You’re right that some poor people can be quite content, probably because they have so little to manage. But not all poverty is created equal. There’s obviously a certain point at which their situation is entirely untenable and “shalom” isn’t possible, i.e. with no roof over their head, not enough food to feed their family, living in constant fear of violence…

      Each of us has certain role to play to make the world a better place… I wonder if one reason many of the commands (as in the 10) are in the negative: “Don’t lie or steal or covet…” so that we at least know what NOT to do to our neighbors. The specifics on how we engage in the positive alternative are between us and the Spirit. But having no regard for neighborliness is not an option for us. It’s not a list of neighbor duties as much as a command to be “neighborly” that I’m proposing.

      Nevertheless it’s sometimes put positively: “Command those who are rich in this present world … to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” 1 Timothy 6

      The old saying is, “If your neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the price of your garden hose.” I guess that’s where we “draw the line” as you say. At the very least, good neighbors don’t let their neighbors house burn down if they’ve got a hose that can reach and water to spare. Sounds like Proverbs: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.”

      How we get to a more equitable “neighborhood” is up to each of us doing our specific assignment, but doing nothing is not an option. For instance, you’re a relentless (and sometimes annoying) advocate for Compassion International for instance. I’ve been thinking about drinking some of that cool-aid myself…

      Love you, neighbor!


      1. “Relentless and annoying about Compassion?” My, that’s one of the nicest things you’ve ever said to me. Thank you! 🙂 Let me know when you are ready for a kid!!!
        Was thinking about this conversation and it dawned on me that the real bottom line is that “if I give all my possessions to feed the poor…. but do not have love, it profits me nothing…” so I will continue to hope that if I keep working on truly loving (not an easy task!), He will show the way.


  2. Oh how I would love for everyone to be happy and their bellies be full. My heart grieves when I think of someone being hungry and cold! I would love to change the whole world but I can’t. My husband and I have learned in many different ways that if we want to be good neighbors or change our world we must first do it within our own circle. If we can’t be good neighbors or make a change in our circle then odds are we will not make a change else where. I can’t change the borders from Ky but I can be a part of our ministry that helps the poor in our area. I can’t rescue the children in 3rd world countries but I can sure love and be aware of the little ones in my neighborhood. We must first love the neighbors in our circle.


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