“Won’t you be my neighbor?”
It is hard to find an adult born in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s who doesn’t have some awareness of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the beloved PBS show that aired from 1968-2001. I grew up before Netflix, Hulu or other streaming services made viewing options endless for children. All we had was a pair of rabbit ears and a few basic channels.
I wanted to be Mr. Rogers. I would walk through my bedroom door, sit on my bed, take off my shoes and put on my sweater. Mr. Rogers gave me license to imagine. He gave me license to play. And he taught me how to be kind.
When I watched Mr. Rogers, it felt like he was talking to me. When he asked me to be his neighbor, I wanted to respond with a resounding “yes!” To him, a neighbor wasn’t just the person next door. A neighbor was a fellow human sharing the collective experience of life on this planet. Whether across the street or on the other side of the world, we were all his neighbors.
This way of thinking is entirely biblical, which is probably why children resonated with him so much (children have a unique way of grasping biblical truths even when they can’t articulate them fully). We want to feel like we matter. We want to feel like we are part of something. We were made to be neighbors and to be loved by neighbors.
In our busy, internet-obsessed age, it’s easy to wonder who falls under the category of “neighbor.” Is it your co-worker? Your roommate or fellow church member? What about all your friends and followers online — are they your neighbors? Or maybe it’s just your literal neighbors, the people who live to your right and to your left.
A parable to explain
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus tells His famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The classic Sunday school text follows a man who is walking along a road and is attacked by robbers and left for dead. Two religious men (a priest and a Levite) pass him without helping him. But then another man comes upon him — a Samaritan. This man goes above and beyond. He cares for the injured man’s wounds, uses his own animal to transport him, and pays with his own money to put the man up in an inn so he can recover.
As the parable ends, Jesus asks: “Which of these is the neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”
We all know the correct answer. The Samaritan, of course. He was the one who was merciful and kind. He was the one who had compassion and gave of himself for the abused man. But given his identity, he was also the one who was most unexpected.
Jesus used parables for a purpose. They were designed to teach a lesson and often to proclaim judgment on the religious leaders. Here, the parable is also used to show that the question we often ask about neighbor love is all wrong. We shouldn’t be asking “Who is my neighbor?” at all.
Neighbor-love is Christian love
Christians have historically been known as radically neighbor-oriented. During the time of the plagues in Europe, it is widely reported that the only ones who stayed to care for the sick and dying were Christians. They were the ones who went to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). As a result, many lost their own lives.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther was known for saying, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” Essentially, he was saying that your good works won’t save you (salvation is by faith alone), but your work (or your vocation) as well as your good deeds, talents and opportunities are given to you for another purpose — to love your neighbor. As a result, this view lived out among Christians transformed that entire culture as Christians did their work for the good of their neighbor, knowing that in light of the great hope of the salvation they already had, they could love and work for the glory of God and the good of others.
Like the Samaritan man, these Christians weren’t moved by the quest to find out who exactly was their neighbor. What moved them were transformed hearts that evidenced compassion and led them to act when circumstances warranted action.
Looking for neighbors to love
What does this look like for you? Too often we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” because we misunderstand the process of identifying them. Like many other areas of life, we see neighboring in terms of choice. We choose the ministries we are part of. We choose who we serve. We choose our friends — even our neighborhoods.
But what is different about the Samaritan’s story is that he didn’t set out one day looking for his neighbor. He simply was in the right place at the right time. He was the most unlikely person to stop and show love to the injured man, yet he was the one Jesus used to demonstrate the very essence of neighbor love. Your neighbor is sometimes the very opposite of who you think he would be. Or sometimes your neighbor is so much a part of your life that you miss him or her standing right in front of you.
In light of this, here are some questions to ask yourself:
When you drive to work or go out with friends, do you think about the people around you? When you run a red light or drive too close to another person’s car because you think they are going too slow (guilty), do you see them as a person — as a neighbor you are called to treat with dignity and respect?
Do you consider the needs/preferences of your coworkers before you act, or do you see them only as bodies you work alongside?
In your home, do you treat your roommate as a neighbor? Do you replace the toilet paper when it is gone, take out the trash when it is full, offer to help with various tasks, and generally consider his or her needs before your own?
Do you love the vulnerable in your sphere of influence? Do you listen to the person who talks too much without ever asking you questions? Do you give willingly to the person who has nothing to offer in return?
Neighbor love is hard. In philosophical terms it sounds amazing, like something we all want to sign up for. Who doesn’t want to be like the Reformers who saw their work as valuable and useful?
But think again about the Samaritan. Caring for the man who was beaten by robbers was costly for him. Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). Samaritans were hated by the Jews, rejected by the Jews, and given no place of respect or influence in Jewish society. When Jesus used this man to show the Pharisees who their neighbor was, He was using the most despised person they could’ve imagined — the last person they would have chosen to be the hero. And Jesus looks at them — and us — and says to go and do likewise.
You are deeply connected to everyone around you because you are made in God’s image to reflect Him to a watching world. Your neighbor is whoever is right next to you right now. Neighbor love isn’t detached from Christian living — it is Christian living. It is the overflow of a transformed life. If the fruit of the Christian life is loving our neighbor, then we will live that fruit out in every context. It actually makes ordinary work come alive. It makes every single vocation profoundly purposeful.
Your driving becomes neighbor love because God loves even crazy drivers. Your shopping becomes neighbor love because everything you purchase is connected to a person who made it, packaged it and delivered it to you.
“God doesn’t need our good works,” Luther said, “but our neighbor does.” Look around you. Maybe your neighbor is right there.
Copyright 2019 Courtney Reissig. All rights reserved.