by Dr. William Powell Tuck, friarsfragment.com, retired pastor, professor and author of The Forgotten Beatitude: Worshiping Through Stewardship, A Positive Word for Christian Lamenting: Funeral Homilies, The Church Under the Cross, and more!
Jesus told his followers to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. (Mark 12: 28-34). Who is your neighbor? Jesus defined neighbor in his parable about the good Samaritan. Can you imagine Jesus telling a Pharisee, who even thought fellow Jews were unclean, that a Samaritan was his neighbor? Who did Jesus make a hero? A half-breed Samaritan! No, the Pharisees and other Jews would not have been too thrilled with that hero. In fact, when Jesus asked the Pharisee which of the three he thought had been neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves, he would not even say “Samaritan.” He replied simply: “The one who showed him kindness” (Luke 10:37). This parable focuses on those who talk a lot about religion but in time of need only walked by. The priest and the Levite walked by on the other side of the road and left the man in his pain after he had been robbed. The good Samaritan saw the need of his neighbor and came to his aid.
Who then is a neighbor? My neighbor is anybody who needs help. A real neighbor reaches out with spontaneous love and extravagant graciousness to help someone in need. There is a need, and we reach out to meet it. Can we turn our back on the refuges in the world or shut our borders to them and still claim we are following the teachings of Jesus?
The original meaning of our English word neighbor comes from an Anglo-Saxon word which meant “nigh boor” the person who lived “nigh”–near you. The person nigh you might live in the next hollow, on the hill nearby, in the valley below you–anyone nearby. But Jesus doesn’t want us to see our neighbor simply as somebody who happens to live next door, or on the next hill, or over in the next hollow, or in the valley, or on the next mountain peak. Any person who has a need is your neighbor and mine. Persons fleeing persecution around the world are indeed our neighbors.
The test of real love is not in talk but in action. Love is not limited to feelings but is most visibly realized in service. The real neighbor in the parable of the good Samaritan was the one who reached out and ministered to another person in need. It is one thing to talk about love and another thing to practice it. Who is your neighbor? Any person who has any kind of need at all is your neighbor and mine. When you and I listen to the television news or read the paper and learn about hurting persons around the world, these persons are neighbors too. If we shut our eyes to the immediate needs at hand or around the world, we refuse to be neighbors as God wants us to be. Wherever there is hurt, pain, sorrow, hunger, prejudice, or disease, there is an opportunity to be a neighbor.
But the tough question then arises: How can I really be a neighbor to others, even if I know there is a need? How can we love our neighbor as we do ourselves? That seems a tall command. Let me make several suggestions on how we can love our neighbor. First, to love my neighbor does not mean that I have to like him or her. If you and I are honest, there are a lot of folks who are hard to like! When we see some of the ugly things they do or say, they are not easy to like. But Jesus didn’t say that we had to like our neighbors, but we were to love them. This might sound like we are playing with words, but, I believe, there is a real difference.
Now let’s be honest! We all do a whole lot of things from time to time that we don’t like about ourselves, but we keep on loving ourselves. And that is the same way we need to act toward our neighbors. The reason we can do this is because the love which Jesus is talking about here is not an emotion. This love is not based on goose bumps or our feelings. Agape is love that directs the will to actions. Agape is an effort of the will. This is the kind of love that Jesus is calling us to have here. You may not like what somebody does, but you can love them and try to overcome the bad behavior and respond to a higher way.
Secondly, we can love another person as our neighbor if we treat him or her like we want to be treated ourselves. This teaching is summarized in the golden rule where Jesus taught: “Do unto others as you would have them do even also unto you.” If you and I would act toward other people as we want them to act toward us, then we could love them. This attitude means that you will not do anything to belittle another person, hurt them, or harass them. Your goal is to help them. You act kindly toward them because you know that is the kind of response you would like in return from them. When you and I treat other people as we want them to treat us, it gives us a different perspective toward them. If we see another person merely as someone we can manipulate, abuse, hurt, or criticize, then we do not see them as we want to be seen ourselves. We know that is not the way we act toward ourselves or want others to respond to us. We want to act toward them as we would want them to act toward us.
Thirdly, you can love your neighbor when you recognize that you cannot be indifferent to another person’s needs since you are not indifferent to your own. You cannot ignore needs in your own self. If you never responded to any of your own needs, you could not really exist. You have to meet those needs in your own life, whether they be food, water, sleep, or friendship. Our awareness of our own needs should make us more sensitive to our neighbor’s needs. This awareness should keep us from shutting our eyes and folding our hands and ignoring our neighbor. He or she is a person who wants love and care.
Fourthly, we can love our neighbors if we recognize that they are persons of worth and are loved by God, just as we ourselves have sensed that we are persons of worth and we too are loved by God. Even at times when we may feel the most unworthy and unacceptable to God, the good news is that God still loves us. Jesus expressed this in the way he reached out to persons in every walk of life. Tax collectors were among those who were often rejected by their fellow Jews in the time of Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus and called Matthew to be one of his disciples. Mary Magdalene, who was most likely a prostitute, was also forgiven of her sins by Jesus. Jesus called his disciples from every walk of life to follow him. He communicated to all of them that they were persons of worth and were loved by him. He reached out to the hurting people of humanity–the blind, the lame, and the deaf. He reached out to people who were rejected and told them that God loved them.
Jesus didn’t say that this commandment was going to be easy. Loving God with your total being is certainly not easy. Loving your neighbor as yourself is likewise not easy. But think of the radical difference there would be in our world if we could really love God with all our personality and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In the early church what often made the real difference in how society responded to the first Christians was not their theology but their love for each other. Others observing the early Christians would often remark: “Behold, how they loved one another.” Do they say that today? How can the world see that kind of love in the constant fights in our denominations, the quarrels in our churches, and especially in how we treat our needy neighbors around the world in their time of need. I for one want to welcome the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant as my neighbor. “Behold how they loved one another” needs to be a refrain in the life of the church once again.
We cannot build real communities on hate. They must be built on love. Helmut Thielicke has suggested that we need to turn the lawyer’s question around. We do not need to ask, “Who is my neighbor,” as the Pharisee asked. Our question should be, “To whom am I a neighbor?”i Needs are all around us in our world today. Jesus has told us that the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is like the one about loving God. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus has instructed us. Let us as Christians get up and be about our Lord’s business as we confront the needs near us and around the world.
i Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), p. 168.