Christ is quite clear about loving our neighbors. He tells us that we cannot love God if we don’t love our neighbors.
Think about it for a moment. Jesus commands us to go outside our comfort zones to love our neighbors, whether they are someone we know or total strangers.
My comfort zone is that of a straight, white cradle Christian, and the Lord is telling me I must love the family down the street, as well as gays and transgender people I’ve never met; Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and other people of color; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and agnostics ….
All of these people are my neighbors, and if I cannot love them, I cannot love God.
What about you? Who are your neighbors? How do you feel about them? Are you able to love them?
THE GREATEST COMMANDMENTS
In Mark 12: 28-31, a Pharisee asks Jesus which commandment is the most important. Pharisees were experts on Jewish law during Christ’s time on earth, and this particular Pharisee was more interested in testing the Lord than hearing his answer.
Christ tells him: “…thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. This is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The Bible doesn’t get any clearer than that.
Even so, Christ reiterates this point in 1 John when he says that people who claim to love God while hating their neighbors are liars. My pastor once said that we cannot have Christ’s love in our hearts when our hearts are filled with hate. She was right.
The Bible contains several other verses about loving our neighbors, but one of the best-known scriptures concerns the Good Samaritan. The story, told in Luke 10: 25-37, begins when someone asks Christ, “Who is my neighbor?”
Rather than give a direct response, Jesus tells the parable of a man, presumably Jewish, who is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the way, thieves rob and beat him before leaving him to die.
A priest traveling on the same road sees the severely injured man, but continues on his way without offering any help. Perhaps he has important business in Jericho and is running late. There’s no time for him to help a stranger.
A little later, a Levite, whose tribe performs various religious duties for the Israelites, also sees the man but does nothing. Maybe he worries that the robbers will return and beat him to death. Better not stop, he may decide as he rushes away.
Then, a Samaritan sees the injured man lying on the side of the road.
None of the Jews who were listening to Christ’s story would have expected this man to help. The Jews and Samaritans hated one another. To their way of thinking, the Samaritan would have been unmoved by the sight of his enemy writhing in pain on the ground.
“Good riddance,” he may have thought. Or he may have told himself, “This Jew will never repay me, a Samaritan, for helping him.” Or he could have asked himself, “What will my friends think if they hear about me helping a Jew?”
But the Samaritan did none of those things.
Christ tells his listeners that the Samaritan treats the man’s wounds, places him on an animal he has with him, and takes him to an inn. There, the Samaritan continues to care for the man and gives the innkeeper money to provide additional care. He also tells the innkeeper that he will cover any additional expenses.
“Which of the three men was a neighbor of the man who was beaten by robbers?” Christ asks. The answer, of course, is the Samaritan. Christ then tells his listeners, “Go and do likewise.”
HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?
What does the story mean to 21st century Americans? Envision yourself in these situations.
- You’re a woman who’s driving alone at night. As you round a curve, you see a man lying beside a motorcycle on the road. He appears to be injured, but given the pervasive evil in our world, you’re suspicious that this might be a trap. Maybe the man is a would-be car thief or serial killer who is trying to lure you out of your car. Can you love your neighbor without endangering yourself? Do you even want to?
- Another incident involves someone carrying a sign that says he’s out of work and needs help. You ordinarily would stop and give him a little money, but he looks Arabic. The anniversary of 9/11 was several days ago, and your dislike of Muslims has resurfaced. Will your resentment get the best of you?
- Finally, a same-sex couple enters your church one Sunday morning and takes front row seats. Your church is fairly conservative, and you have no gay members. The two women are holding hands and making no effort to hide their homosexuality. Do you welcome them, ignore them or ask them to leave?
Christ would tell us to…
- invite the neighbors we know and the neighbors we don’t know to church
- pray for people by name
- share stories of God’s love with our neighbors
- help people when you know they need help
- check on people in need, especially those who are older or shut-in
- let go of grudges
- treat other people fairly and with kindness.
How can we possibly do those things and do them with real sincerity? I cannot answer that question because I’m still struggling with “love thy neighbor.” I imagine you are, as well.
A PRAYER OF LOVE
Thank you for loving me unconditionally despite all of my shortcomings. Help me remember that the greatest gift is love. When I feel anger, bitterness or harsh thoughts toward ____________ and others, help me let go of my hatred. Help me learn to love the Karens of this world even when they are hateful or rude. Help me see other people the way you see them. Guide me away from being judgmental, and please forgive me when I have difficulty forgiving. Amen.