Neighborly: Characteristic of a good neighbor, especially helpful, friendly, kind, obliging, helpful, hospitable, civil, generous…
In his speech yesterday, President Obama said: “Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid (a young woman to whom from Mexico to whom he refers in his speech) – or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in? . . . Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.”
Believe it or not, I began writing this multi-part essay on neighborliness a couple of months before I even knew the President was going to make a speech about immigration reform and sign an executive action delaying deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants. I’ve held the views that I’ve posited in these last several posts for a decade or two, but have just now finally put a few of my convictions into words.
If you know me you know that I can rarely be lured into any sort of debate on politics. One buddy of mine calls me his completely “apolitical” friend. It’s not that I don’t care about public policy or my civic duty to vote my conscience. I have opinions on moral issues that are debated in the public square and the laws that are made through our democratic system. On the other hand, since it’s quite clear to me that my calling is to be a preacher and teacher of the Bible I seldom wander far from that assignment and into territories in which others are much more proficient than I.
I say this, so that you’ll know that I claim possession of no simple solutions to the complex problems of immigration in our country. I merely hope to present a biblical viewpoint in regard to the Christian’s call to neighborliness. If after reading what the Bible says and my meager interpretations about how to treat our neighbors, which I believe clearly includes those who come to our country to escape intense poverty and / or life-threatening persecution, you come to a different conclusion than mine, I’d love to hear from you.
How this all works out in socio-political context, I proffer no opinion. I just know that God tells us repeatedly in his Word to love our neighbor and care for immigrants along with widows, orphans, and the poor. At the conclusion of this post I’ve given a short list of passages that indicate that our neighbors include the sort of people about whom politicians are debating right now. Read them for yourself and see if your own attitudes and opinions are shaped by greed or by God.
In Part 3 we were talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan and how the Bible expert looked for a way to lawyer his way out of having to act lovingly toward people he thought were his inferiors. He was willing to be neighborly in some cases, but he drew the line when it came to those Mexicans (or those Syrians or those Hondurans or you fill in the blank) who come over here and take our jobs and raise our taxes! Oops, did I say that out loud?
Neighborly toward some and not others? Let’s turn it around: “Toward whom am I not responsible to act humanely? Who do I have the luxury of treating with disdain? Who can I overlook and disallow in my circle of care? Who can I hurt instead of help, and get away with it? God, surely, you allow a certain amount of bigotry, a teensy bit of nationalistic and socioeconomic superiority.”
You have to appreciate, in response to the man’s inquiry, Jesus’ cleverly concocted parable. He cast a hated guy as the good guy in the story, and the homeboy as the destitute party. He made the one with whom they were the least neighborly, the most neighborly character in his story. Here’s what I mean.
When his Jewish contemporaries heard the parable they would naturally identify with the waylaid and wounded one. They felt robbed and left for dead by their Roman oppressors. It was no stretch for their imaginations to view themselves as the victimized. “The injustice of it all! Somebody come and save us!” So far so good – until the story unfolded and the hero was unveiled.
Jesus slyly inserted a despicable Samaritan as the protagonist, the role model. A heroic Samaritan helps the Jew! Right – wait, what? “Yeah, do like the Samaritan does. Be the kind of neighbor he was!” That would be paramount to telling a story to a conservative Christian audience in which the moral is to emulate, “Be like the Muslim, act like the atheist, or like the gay guy!”
Don’t you just hate it when God doesn’t hate the same people you do and when the people you don’t like are the very people you should be like? It’s a real bummer when those we evade in public, about whom we secretly sneer, whose proximity we take great pains to maintain superiority over are not only our neighbors, but who act more neighborly than we do! It’s hard to hate someone who is a better neighbor to me than I am to him. “Be like the one you believe is less than you. You might not agree with his religion, his cultural preferences, his lifestyle; but of all the bad things you could say about him, he does one thing especially well; he knows how to be a good neighbor. He loves people that aren’t like him. Go and do likewise!”
No wonder the religious right hated Jesus! This rates up there in the top ten politically incorrect things he ever said. They weren’t used to calling just anyone “neighbor.” Their own Bibles, maneuvered in a clever way, gave them plenty of ammunition to justify their nationalistic and religious elitism. After all, didn’t God say to stay clear from the other nations? Yes and no. He told them to stay clear of their ways not necessarily stay clear away from them. In fact, throughout that same Bible, God gave the Jews repeated commands to not only be a “light to the nations,” but to take up the care and cause of the immigrant – sometimes called the “stranger or alien” – even the ones most disdained or feared.*
Of all the people with whom the Jews were the least inclined to treat in a neighborly fashion were Samaritans. They avoided those people of questionable breeding like a bad cold, traversing around their quarantined territory whenever necessary. When they either had to go through the devil’s land or when the devil’s own citizens wandered off their “reservation,” the strictest of Jews tended to be, let’s say, less than neighborly. Jesus, of course, had no such habit. Not only did he drag his disciples through Samaria in search of one particular morally degenerate woman, he commanded those men to, after his departure, be his witnesses among the cultic Samaritans (John 4 and Acts 1).
Could the ideology of the unwelcomed foreigner that many espouse be nothing but selfishness toward our neighbors, especially the most desperate of them? Some people seem to want to make it illegal to be a Samaritan here in America, let alone a “Good Samaritan.” You see somebody on the side of the road, breathing their last. Do you ask, “Are you okay?” Or, “Areyou legal?”
* Notice in the passages below, God seems to possess special concern for immigrants. In the Old Testament the “foreigner” is often referred to in the same breath as the “fatherless, the widow, and the poor,” all of which make up a sort of quartette of the most vulnerable in any society. In one of them you might be surprised to read that oppressing the outatowner appears linked to such evils as sorcery, adultery, and perjury!
To read these, copy this list of passages and paste it into biblegateway.com: Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 24:14-15, 24:17, 27:19, Leviticus 19:34, Ezekiel 22:29, Malachi 3:5