On being neighborly (Who do I have to love and how much?) Part 2 of 5ish

love your neighbor“There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.” Martin Luther King Jr at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, July 4, 1965.

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

In Part 1 I mentioned that the “Love your neighbors” command appears throughout the Bible’s pages and I proposed that the neighbors we’re supposed to love are not just those in our same zip code.

Here’s where we jump into some of those neighborliness passages. For my money, the best way to understand any theme in Scripture is to look at as many of the passages as we can where it is found and study each one along with their contexts. From Moses to Jesus to Paul to James God’s demand to “Love your neighbor” is convictingly clear. Jesus called it the second greatest command and his half-brother James referred to it as “the royal law of Scripture.” Let’s unpack some of these a bit.

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:18

Have you actually read Leviticus? It’s not exactly Hemingway or the first book you’d turn to in order to read about love! Nevertheless, here in the least likely place, the manual famous for its ceremonial law demands, is where this “love your neighbor” stuff began.

You can see, based on this verse, how a guy in search of a legal loophole centuries later could come up with the audacity to insist that Jesus clarify the precise identity of this abstract “neighbor” he was required to love (Luke 10). “Your people” in Leviticus sounds like God only required the Jews to love other Jews. If this were the only passage we possessed on this, it’s conceivable that we could arrive at this conclusion and that vengeance, grudge-keeping, and lovelessness get a pass outside our own circle of friends!

We know that’s not true, but just how far does our love have to reach? Let’s jump to Jesus’ words.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…Matthew 5:43

You can’t believe everything you “hear” is right, right? Moses didn’t say, “Hate your enemy!” but somewhere along the line some Rabbi must’ve made the leap from Leviticus to ludicrous. “If I’m supposed to love my own circle, it follows that it’s okay – nay, better – to hate those who live outside that circumference!”

If we read the rest of the story it’s clear that though we are commanded to hate the ways of the wicked, we’re not supposed to hate the wicked. Unfortunately, it seems many Christians haven’t read the rest of the story. Bill Maher who said, “For 2000 years Christians have been lawyering the Bible,” also taunted us about non-violence: “It’s in that book that you hold up when you’re screaming at gays!” Ouch!

Don’t you think maybe Jesus was saying that even people who hate us are our neighbors? Even those who do us harm or threaten to do so are not exempt from neighbor status. We may not like them or understand them, but we do have to care about them as members of our global neighborhood.

Here’s another Jesus “love your neighbor” conversation…

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Matthew 19:16-22

This over-privileged loophole hunter wanted to know which commands he was required to obey to get into heaven. “Which commands do I have to obey? What’s the bottom-line here – the irreducible minimum?”

Jesus’ reply is curious in that he didn’t strictly quote from the Ten Commandments. He started after the first four commands and then left off the one about “coveting” your neighbor’s stuff and then replaced it with “love your neighbor as yourself.” I guess he was thinking, if you love your neighbor more than you love his wife or his house, then you won’t give in to your envy and break into his house and steal his wife!

Then there’s the tiny matter of what he told the rich guy, who claimed he was so good at keeping these commands. “Okay, great. Since you love your neighbor so much, liquidate your estate and give your poor neighbors all the proceeds!” Now that’s loving your neighbor!

Whether or not he calls you to do something so radical is between you and Jesus. But my point is that he singled out “the poor” as neighbors. He made it clear that some of the rich guy’s neighbors were those who mostly likely lived in other “neighborhoods.” That is, among his neighbors were poor people.

If I asked you to identify your neighbors, would there be any poor individuals on your neighbor list or would the left out be left out? How many of us even know the name of one homeless person? Mother Teresa said, “It is fashionable to talk about the poor… unfortunately it is not as fashionable to talk to the poor.”

We may have to get out of our “neighborhood” to get acquainted with a neighbor across town. We can’t very well love our hungry neighbor if we never even go to the part of town where s/he lives.

The mandate to love our neighbor (especially the poorest of them) is more of a call to solidarity than to service, to friendship than to charity. It’s not a vertical relationship with the “underclass” that is our first – and for some, our last – compassionate reaction to the mandate to love the left out. We don’t stand above the poor, we stand with them until they are no longer “the poor,” just friends and neighbors!

We don’t live in a vacuum. Everything we believe is to be lived out in community with the support and accountability of others. It’s not just information that changes us. Share this with someone you trust and pray together about how to live it out.

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