Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Hello neighbor.  Thanks for reading.

I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, but I never felt that I lived in a suburban neighborhood.  As an adult, I hear/read/experience so much about neighbors, especially in the suburbs, never talking or interacting, but my best friends growing up were the cool dudes up the street and across the field from me.  Our lives revolved around playing neighborhood games of soccer, capture the flag, and night tag in the perilous field that separated my house from my best friend and the boy a grade older than us.  I never felt that I had to travel miles to play with friends, and my summers as a kid were some the coolest and best memories I ever had.

College was really no different.  When living in the dorms you could not avoid running into other people.  Life with other people was a necessity in college and there was no shortage of guys and gals to hang out with on any given night, even if it just meant sitting in your dorm room watching Forensic Files on Court TV.

But something happened to neighborly friendliness when I got married and had a family.  Somehow, all that stuff that had been bantered about the neighborliness of our society decaying suddenly had teeth to it.  You didn’t want to hang out with the creepy guy who checked his mailbox ten times a day and stared at you from his screen door in his underwear (true story).  There was no reason to get to know the neighborhood old lady, since she fenced up her house and never came out of it.  Not even the nice family adjacent from you.  You just exchanged niceties and never could remember the wife’s name.  There seemed to be this unsaid rule that you stayed in your yard and did your best to follow the prescribed boundaries set out by your local municipality.

I don’t know what happened.  Why did I suddenly feel no need to get to know people?  Was it my fault?  Was it other people’s faults?  A combination of both of them?

I saw this in our church, as well.  We gravitated towards those the most like us.  Why did we bother commiserating with those we didn’t know, when it was so much easier to stick with who we know and enjoy Sunday mornings in comfort? I didn’t want to go meet new people.  I had friends, and TV, and video games, and books, and quiet times, and Bible Studies.

Looking back, I think I was trying to make strangers out of my neighbors and make neighbors out of people I called my friends.  My friends, my inner circle, became who I cared about and my neighborhood became wherever they were.  My real neighborhood, the place where I lived among other people, became a strange land of strange people with strange habits and lives I didn’t care about.

But what did Jesus want us to see in Creepy Underwear Guy, or in Shut-in old lady, or Denim-wearing Homeschool Mom at church?  Was I really supposed to make my neighbors into weird strangers that I gave funny names?

In Luke 10, Jesus addresses the question of who is our neighbor.  A lawyer, seeking to justify himself after Jesus tells him the law is summed up by loving God and loving your neighbor, asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus, as a great teacher and provocateur, answers the lawyer’s question with a story:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers.  They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down that road.  When he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion.  He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine.  Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him.  When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’  Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  “The one who showed mercy to him,” he said.  Then Jesus told him, “Go and do the same.”  (Luke 10:30-37 HCSB)

The main point Jesus is trying to make is to showcase the lawyer’s self-justification by keeping the law.  He shows that the best neighbor is the one that helps by using the example of the Samaritan helping this poor traveler, not the obedient priest or the holy Levite who walked right by him.  The Samaritan was someone seen as extremely offensive and was an ethnic pariah in the Jewish community, so his use of the Samaritan is striking.  Jesus is saying, “Your holy obedience and holy club mean nothing if you are not willing to help those in need and be a true neighbor by imitating this Samaritan helping the poor, dying man.”

Likewise, Jesus said that the Samaritan proved to be the neighbor to this man.  The Samaritan, a common epithet used at the time among Jews (in fact, Jesus is called a Samaritan in a derogatory way), is your neighbor, as well as one who can be a neighbor to you.  Jesus does not find this offensive, but is highlighting the hypocrisy of those who try to justify themselves through strict obedience to their man-made laws, and he points them to the heart of God.

“Jesus invites us to have a posture of treating those that are most offensive to us as our neighbors.”

This is further illustrated in Jesus’ story to a ruler of the Pharisees’ when he was invited over for dinner (Jesus walked and ate with sinners, but he also ate with the people who hated him.  Talk about an example to strive for).  Jesus said to everyone gathered at this dinner:

“When you have a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.  You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”  (Luke 14:12b-14)

Jesus invites us to have a posture of treating those that are most offensive to us as our neighbors.  Heretical Samaritans, the blind, the poor, the lame, the crippled; all of these were unclean and deeply offensive to the Pharisees and keepers of the law.  Jesus rebukes our holy huddles and man-made laws to embrace a radical discipleship that looks beyond our own theological navel-gazing and invites us to embrace the Father’s gracious and loving heart.  We are to be like the Father, who extended unmerited favor and grace to us, and feed and bless those who cannot repay us in turn for our kindness, just as we can never repay the Father for His gracious provision of His son and inviting us into His family.

My challenge to myself, and to you by extension, is to seriously ask what the Spirit is saying as a result of Jesus’ words.  Are we going to be like the lawyer and try and justify ourselves by loving only those who we are willing to love?  Are we going to be like I have and give them a funny label to slightly de-personalize (or de-neighbor) those around us?  Or, are we going to step out in obedience, in the power of the Spirit, and love those who are unlovely and offensive to us?

My hope for myself is to not find the next funny label for a weird neighbor, work colleague, or fellow church member, but to step out in faith to love someone that looks and acts nothing like me and pray for the Spirit to make me more like Jesus’ loving hands and feet to a “creepy-underwear guy.”  He did that for me on the cross and I pray for myself and you to have a heart that bleeds for the weird and for the outsider like Jesus’ does.

PS  If you are looking for great resources on how to build relationships with your neighbors, read The Art of Neighboring.

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