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Loving our Neighbors, Literally.

Jesus gave his church two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.

Who is your neighbor? I grew up in the church and the word “neighbor” seemed to be defined very broadly, referring to any other person or category of persons that one could think of. It applies to the poor, my believing and unbelieving friends, my colleagues, those I go to church with, my roommates, the children in other countries I visited in person or with my donations, etc. etc. The definition of neighbor I heard the least in church was the literal “person next door.” How ironic!

One reason for this underappreciation of our literal neighbor is, I think, the parable of the Good Samaritan itself. Jesus tells this story in response to this very question – “who is my neighbor”? He proceeds to tell the story of an injured man on the side of the road in dire need of help. The religious leaders walk by while the Samaritan, the cultural enemy of those first century Jewish leaders, stops to help.

I think the public setting of the story has allowed me to imagine that injured man abstractly, he is any person “out there” needing my help, no matter his or her relationship to me.

Yet, there is a radical literalness to this story. The Samaritan was responding to the literal intersection of his day with another’s need. The Samaritan’s neighbor was not his to define or his to respond to on his convenience or timeline. It was literally the person he passed on the road on his way to somewhere else.

The Samaritan could have rationalized that neighbor away, just like the Jewish leaders did. The Samaritan likely served many people at more “convenient” times through his planned calendar and tithes. And in my imagination I can hear the religious leaders protesting “but! but! we serve our neighbors every day in our roles as priests!, We teach, worship, connect people with God, care for our community. Jesus, are those not my neighbors? Don’t they count?!??”

And here’s where it gets radically hard to be a Jesus follower. I think Jesus is defining “neighbor” far more concretely than the religious leaders did. They are literally the people who intersect with our day, who stand/sit/lie right in front of us. They don’t appear when we are available or when its convenient for us. They aren’t the impoverished children we send money and missionaries to, the attenders of our church gatherings that come at a prescribed time, or even the faceless sick and homeless we make care packages for. No amount of these good works may count if we walked past the inconvenient encounters with the neighbors of our daily lives.

So who is your neighbor? I think the answer might be the literal one. The people that live next to you. The people who work in the cubicle beside you, or sit in the classroom next to you. The human needs that literally intersect with your space during the day. These neighbors are often not convenient, we don’t get to tell God when to make them appear or how much time we have to help them. Yet, as Rosaria Butterfield says about neighbors, “God doesn’t get the address wrong.”

My prayer for us is that God will give us the heart of the Samaritan who cancelled his plans for the man right in front of him and didn’t try to convince God that the more convenient or flashy good works of his life were enough. When we serve our literal neighbors we are acting in faith that God didn’t get our addresses wrong. God has placed us in the literal communities of our lives for a purpose. It actually takes more faith to live this way than we think.

Below is a little promo video for a book about this very topic. The video is not to persuade you to read it or a subtle hint from your pastor. Mostly its because a video is way more fun than a bunch of reading. But if you decide to read it let Pastor Brett or Christina know, they would love to hear what you think!


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