As part of the What if the Church initiative, we’ve been talking a lot at church about neighborhoods and being a blessing to neighbors. I’ve been encouraged to see so much interest and energy devoted to figuring out what it means for the Church to be something in the world and what it looks like to be a blessing to the people around us.
The command to love your neighbor as yourself first crops up in Leviticus 19:18, although the preceding verses also spell out a lot of what it means to live with justice and compassion with regard to your neighbor. The word for neighbor is reaka (and derivatives) and is used, at base, to mean someone that you’re with. It is sometimes used to describe a friend or a peer as well as someone you live around or even encounter in daily life.
In the context of Israel’s law, this commandment is close to the heart of Israel’s identity and mission, which is to be a special people dedicated to YHWH in a world full of other options. By being this special people, they become a light to the other nations, inviting them to follow YHWH as well as enjoy a relationship with Him and the benefits that flow from that (protection, prosperity, survival from age to age, regard after death, etc.).
In order to be this special people, you need to live a certain way among one another and with one another, and the engine that drives this way of life is love. Not courtesy, not tolerance, but love – the genuine pursuit of the welfare of the other person even at your own expense. If Israel cannot live with each other in this way, then their testimony to the world is seriously impaired. They’ll look just like every other self-serving people out for themselves. The pursuit of love for one another and having that define all their relationships and interactions is something that marks them as different in the world (note John’s record of Jesus saying this is how the world will recognize his disciples – by their love for one another) as well as bringing tangible benefits to the world. The creation of a just society that runs off of love of God and neighbor is what God wants the world to look like, and Israel at that stage of the game was intended to be the model for everyone else. In fact, Leviticus 19 begins with the declaration, “You shall be holy as I am holy.”
By the time we get to Jesus’ day, this experiment has not gone well. Israel has suffered at the hands of her own leaders, hungry for money and power. Some of her own people have even taken up being tax collectors for the Empire, keeping their own people in poverty while skimming off the top for their own comfort. Israel is not in solidarity tied together with strong bonds of love, but instead is scattered like sheep without a shepherd – each one looking to survive life however they can.
The vision of loving neighbors is something Jesus calls faithful Israel back to, but he puts a little teeth into it with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In this parable, there is a man of indeterminate ethnicity, but he is from Jerusalem and, in the story, is most likely a Jew. He is waylaid, and the people who are supposed to love him as themselves – a priest and a Levite – do not. The person who does is a Samaritan, a people who were viewed by the Jerusalem Jews at the time to be of dicey descent and dedicated to a pseudo-Judaism that had many errors, not the least of which was not worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem.
This is what puts the teeth in Jesus’ parable – this Samaritan, who most in the audience would consider more outsider than fellow Jew, takes care of this man from Jerusalem. He binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. This is love, and this man demonstrates to the haughty priest and Levite hearing the story what keeping this commandment looks like. The Samaritan and the beaten man do not live next to each other, nor are they even considered to be the same people group at the time, but the Samaritan cares for someone in need at his own expense – someone God has simply put in his path – and thus fulfills the Law.
We do not have a biblical mandate to do things in our neighborhoods. “Love your neighbor” in the Scriptures does not have a reference to your subdivision, and while the scope of the commandment may include people who live near you, that has never been the reference point of that commandment. I heard a speaker recently comment on that commandment complaining that we “spiritualize” it too much instead of understanding it to be about our literal neighbors, and the problem with that complaint is that Jesus himself “spiritualizes” it by making it not about literal neighbors at all. I’m assuming Jesus’ rabbinical commentary on the commandment should take precedence.
However, as the Church seeks to embody loving neighbors, it may very well be that a wise and good thing to do is to start embodying this principle with our literal neighbors. Considering how little thought we give to doing this in the rush of trying to survive, having a deliberate project to love one another and be a blessing in one’s own neighborhood is actually a pretty great idea. The deliberate, intentional focus on being the people of God in discernible ways in the world is nothing but good for the Church and often neglected. Pursuit of this will benefit us and the world and provide a counter-testimony to our critics, many of whose criticisms are sadly well-founded.
But we also ought to examine ourselves. Are we even loving our neighbors within the Church? This is easy for me to say, sitting behind a keyboard, but do we have church members in danger of foreclosure while others are trying to decide if teak or cherry is the best wood for their new entertainment center? Do we have families who refuse to speak to each other because of some offense or rift from the past? Are we promoting the welfare of others in the church even if it comes at our own expense? What are the limits to that expense? What was the limit for Jesus? Are we really doing anything for one another that would distinguish us from any other community?
I know biker gangs that are more self-sacrificial for one another than many congregations, and it is this phenomenon that is helping to lead an increasingly secular world to conclude that religion, at best, is irrelevant, and at worst, is directly harmful.
But with this, we also need to recognize that loving our neighbor encompasses a broad scope of activity. Delivering meals to and lifting the spirits of those who have to stay at home. Giving blood. Sorting donated clothes. Spending your night off with a person who is struggling to keep their life together. Allowing someone to steal your silver because they need money. Spending time helping your son with his homework when you don’t feel like it. Writing off someone’s invoice. Anytime you sacrifice something of your own welfare to promote the welfare of someone else, you are being a loving neighbor to them.
Rather than sit around feeling terrible about how little we do, we should be encouraged at the scope of how even our little efforts make the world look more like God wants it, and it can motivate us to give even more of ourselves. Loving our neighbors, the way it appears as one of the greatest commandments, is less about singular, grand gestures and more about lifestyle. It’s about making sure everyone who passes through your sphere of interaction is treated with love, whether it costs nothing, a little, or a lot.