Who Is My Neighbor?

“Who is my neighbor” is a question asked of Jesus in the gospel of Luke by a lawyer. Scripture says the lawyer wanted to justify himself, which I think is to say that he wanted to love some people and not others. To do that, he needed to know, “Who is my neighbor.” By implication, “Who is not my neighbor?”

If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes like this:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:25-29, NRSV

Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the good Samaritan, which is so popular that many non-Christians are familiar with it, as well. We even have an American law named after it, but the law is based on the premise that we don’t have any prior responsibility or obligation toward a person in need, nor do we necessarily know the person. In short, it’s understandable that we would help strangers about whom we know nothing, but what happens when we already know who a person is, and it turns out they’re our enemy?

Justifying Ourselves

Many people are looking to justify themselves by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” The United States seems to be experiencing a more public split than at any other time in my life. My parents and grandparents may have experienced far more intense things, but for people in my generation and younger, everything that’s happening politically and socially in our country right now is probably the closest thing to a civil war we’ve ever experienced. This is truer in some places than others, particularly those places where disagreements have turned into violence, or where racism, ethnocentrism, and religious aggression are displayed openly. The effects from those places ripple across the entire nation, and fear, anger, and hatred are welling up in people who sympathize with one side or the other.

While I would love to say that Christians have risen above such things, the reality is that we’re right in the thick of it, on all sides. There are as many outspoken Christians justifying acts of hatred, fear, and prejudice using scripture as there are Christians condemning such actions. We are as quick to judge and make rash decisions as anyone else, and the world will hold us more accountable for it. People have lost friends and had relationships destroyed over what’s happening. People have been persecuted or had family members and loved ones persecuted simply for being who they are. I have seen the fear in people’s eyes and heard the hatred in their voices, and I have seen the confusion and dangerous acceptance in our children.

I think now is the time to revisit what I believe is one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament. I want to examine with you how God calls us out of our narrow worldview and commands us to take up a new position, a new stance, that is opposed to fear, rage, and hatred, because I believe that if Christians can’t master this one thing, we will only succeed in hurting the Kingdom and making the world a worse place.

Love Your Enemies…

“Love your enemies” is a tall order in today’s American society. We can get behind the good Samaritan, so long as we don’t know the people we’re helping, but when we start talking enemies, things get tricky. I live in Las Vegas, and the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting was a great example of this. Much of the city rallied together to support the victims of that shooting and brace each other against the fallout. We received tremendous support from all over the nation. But after a time, it became just another story for Americans to throw at each other about gun violence and gun control. We were all for uniting until we realized the people next to us believe differently than we do. After that, our dualistic thinking kicked in, and we became enemies, again. We love our neighbors, but we hate our enemies.

Jesus calls us to a different way: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I think this is one of the most important ideas in the whole Bible. Understanding this passage isn’t just about obeying a command to love and pray for people; it gives us powerful insight into the nature of God. I think people understate the significance of what Jesus is saying here.

The problem with thinking of our enemies as enemies is that it interferes with our loving them as neighbors. What Jesus is pushing us toward is a shift in our posture toward others. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a command his audience would have been familiar with, but Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor, and hate your enemies,” but I’m telling you that your enemy is actually your neighbor, and those who persecute you require your prayers. So, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, and in this, you are made complete in love as your heavenly father is complete.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Christian who didn’t think this was a good idea, in theory. Actually making a shift in our thinking from enemy to neighbor, however, is another story. It’s easy to think about and to say, but when the enemy is knocking at your door, love is generally not the first thing on our minds.

I’m sure people have written books on this, so I’m only going to highlight one thing we might do to start changing our posture and making our enemies into neighbors.

Speaking Neighbors Into Existence

In the military, language is used to intentionally distance soldiers from their opponents as much as possible. They’re always the enemy. They’re always unified, not individualized. They’re almost always given a nickname, which is often used in a derogatory way. This is because the more we talk about people in derogatory ways, and the more we talk about people in impersonal ways, the easier it is to think of them as “other.”

Psychology studies have shown us that human beings don’t like to kill each other, despite popular opinion. In fact, humans are more resistant to killing humans than almost anything else, so when soldiers are created, they make a conscious effort to overcome those psychological barriers. We know that how they talk about the enemy affects how they deal with the enemy.

In similar ways, the language we use and the position we take in our meditation and in our imagination can affect the way we act toward our enemies and our neighbors. How we imagine the world to be has a profound impact on how we act toward the world. Jesus doesn’t just call us to be kind to our enemies; he calls us to an entirely new posture and way of thinking, and it often begins with how we talk about others.

I think this is why Jesus says to pray for those who persecute us. He doesn’t say to pray about them but to pray for them. Praying for people forces us to think of them as human beings; we go to God with their needs and desires, and that challenges how we label them and how we imagine them to be.

The Good Samaritan

At the end of the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus asks which character was a neighbor to the man in need. Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask, “Who is the Samaritan’s neighbor?” The question is posed from the injured man’s perspective, not the Samaritan’s, and the lawyer answers, “The one who had mercy on him,” which Jesus implies is correct.

To whom I show love determines who is my neighbor. Most people approach the command “love your neighbor as yourself” in the same way as the expert in the law. If I can identify who my neighbors are, then I’ll know who to love. Jesus doesn’t do that; he says, essentially, which of the three men passing by chose to be a neighbor to the injured man? The difference is this: instead of asking, “Who is my neighbor,” we ask, “Who have I loved?” When the question is dependent on us, all of the burden of responsibility falls on us. If someone is my not my neighbor, it is because I have not chosen to love them. Moreover, Jesus commands him to “go and do likewise.” Jesus puts us on the spot: if we thought we could simply turn a blind eye and pick and choose our neighbors, we should think again. The command is to go and do what the Samaritan did: make someone your neighbor without any clear personal gain. Love people for no particular reason, whenever the opportunity arises.

In Romans, Paul makes a similar plea.

Overcome Evil with Good

We do good for the ones we care about, those closest to us, the ones for whom we feel love. Paul says not only should we do that, we ought to do good for our enemies.

A lot of people like to focus on the part about heaping hot coals on our enemies’ heads, but if we do good for our enemies so that it will “heap burning coals on his head,” we’re acting out of a vengeful spirit, not a loving one. That’s the opposite of what Paul is advocating. He specifically says that we shouldn’t take revenge. The emphasis is not on the burning coals. The emphasis is on overcoming evil with good. In other words, we ought to be doing good for everyone, loving everyone, even our enemies, and Jesus says that in our doing good for others, we determine who our neighbors are.

Your Enemy Is Your Neighbor

According to Jesus in the Luke passage, the path to eternal life requires two things: loving God and loving your neighbor. Your enemy is your neighbor, and if we can’t get to a place where we stop thinking of people as our enemies and start thinking of them as our neighbors, we’re going to have a very difficult time with loving them.

Consider Jesus’s crucifixion in Luke. Even on his way out of the city to be nailed to a cross, Jesus’s heart goes out to others. He warns the women of the coming suffering and tells them not to weep for him. By this point, Jesus had already been abandoned by all of his disciples; spit on, beaten, and mocked by the Sanhedrin, as well as being accused of blasphemy; beaten by the Sanhedrin guards, disowned by Peter, flogged, stripped of his clothes and made to dress up, crowned with thorns, mocked by soldiers, and beaten some more. Then, they crucified him between two criminals, at least one of whom also mocked him, along with the Jewish leaders, while he’s hanging there dying on a cross. Yet, in the midst of all of that, Jesus cried out to God, not on his own behalf, but on there’s. He prays for the forgiveness of his enemies, and now they are his neighbors.

Christians Against Christians

These ideas don’t just apply to believers and non-believers. They apply to anyone and everyone in every context, including other congregations. I’m often astonished at the amount of distance that Christians place between themselves and other Christians by doing exactly what the military does with their soldiers. We create categories that make it easy to label “us” and “them.” We lump other Christians into convenient, unified groups, like Baptist, Catholic, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, orthodox, liberal, traditional, etc. Some may argue that Christians place those labels on themselves, which is true, but we then use those labels in derogatory ways against each other; they don’t just identify a person’s place of worship or their beliefs. More often than not, we’re calling to attention all of the things they believe that we think are wrong. “Those Baptists…” “Those Catholics…” “Those Church of Christers…” When we talk about Christians who believe something different than us, it’s often simply to point out differences between us and them. Yes, many congregations have a unifying creed that defines them as a group, but the members of those congregations are individual people with as much variation in actual beliefs, perspectives, and worldviews as any other group of people.

What’s more, we disguise this distancing language and distancing attitude as scriptural purity, when really it’s rarely more than interpretive superiority. We feel that our interpretations of scripture are correct; that’s why we believe them. Therefore, opposing interpretations are incorrect, by default. This is a foolish assumption of superiority.

We need to strive for unity in our Father, unity in our belief that Jesus Christ is God the Son, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead, and unity in the Spirit. Now, more than ever for young Christians, the Church, singular, needs to take a stance of love toward our neighbors. All of them.

There will always be people hostile toward others because of skin color, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, ancestry… You name it, and there are people prejudiced against it, but God calls us to take up a new posture — one of love where we choose to love every person the way that God has loved us, to stop distancing ourselves from people with our language and our thoughts. A posture that sees everyone as our neighbor so that we can love them as ourselves.

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