This idea of loving your neighbor is a cornerstone of the christian tradition. From it, we are informed about charity, generosity, and thanksgiving fleshed out in later reflections from early church leaders.
In many of the stories where people argue with the teacher Jesus about who is a neighbor and who isn’t, people try desperately to hammer down where they are allowed to draw the line. Of course, they always find there is no line but you already knew that.
In the most relevant text where the teacher Jesus speaks with someone about loving their neighbor someone quips, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied by telling a story [the story of the good Samaritan] of showing empathy, compassion, and sacrificial generosity to someone that many in the crowd think should not deserve their help (someone stupid enough to get himself into trouble). Furthermore they are being helped by someone who shouldn’t be helping (an evil, malicious foreigner!) But you probably already knew that too.
But it’s worth reflecting on this idea that stopping to help, and showing empathy and active compassion to someone you think doesn’t deserve it, is a good starting point to love. And what’s more, the people who are already living like this are the ones we think are other, unlike us, maybe even dirty or evil.
After all, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Jesus asks.
I will let you put that in your own world to consider what that might look like in your life.
This isn’t a Sunday Morning sermon where you feel guilted into giving a pot pie to your actual next-door neighbor, chances are you live next to them because they look like you anyway and probably think like you, plus modern suburban culture has greatly confused this word neighbor in the first place.
But if we take a moment, we see Jesus leading the conversation away from the usual text -based legalism of the day into a deeper reality that is present in all of his teachings:
We are not separate.
And as evidenced by who is saved and who does the saving in the parable of the good samaritan, unity is not based on all believing the right and same thing (that idea is a hold over from what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has dubbed Slaveholder Religion.)
Rather, what we see here is that love is manifested when we cross ethnic boundaries, socioeconomic divides, race and class boundaries, and even enemy lines.
This is where a lot of people would get fired up for a missions trip, but we have to remember that the gospel is written from the bottom up perspective, not the top down. The point wasn’t to prepare the kingdom “up there” by telling people everywhere “down here” to believe the right things.
That idea comes from Plato and was and injected into early christian thought in the 300s AD. Plato believed that we are discrete beings and this world is ugly and imperfect, therefore, we must be a reflection of a perfect “world of forms” toward which we are all straining to return.
Originally, the good news of the early church was curated for the poor, the marginalized and outcast, the oppressed and diseased. It was a way to bring out the better world we all know is possible from inside each of us, as a gift to your neighbors.
As mentioned above, around the the 300s AD the story was hijacked by the wealthy and powerful who needed a new moral justification to stay in power and suddenly the church’s story was told from the top down (all this borrowed from one of my heroes, Richard Rohr). This is where the platonic ideas of separation and metaphysical eternities was mixed into the church.
It’s interesting to read the early church leaders and witness the appropriation of greek philosophy over the course of the Byzantium era and onward.
So if we consider the parable of the good samaritan again with a bias for the poor, migrated, outcast, homeless, sick, and marginalized suddenly it means so much more.
It means that the ones the privileged dislike (the migrants, the poor and homeless, the minority, the other) and are trying to “keep out” are actually more likely to stop and help in their genuine love of neighbor than the religious and pious. This same social critique of Jesus’ day remains true today. Like the religious elite in ancient Israel, many of us in modern privileged, white christianity are too busy “winning souls” (like my colonizing forefathers) to consider first how to love all of our neighbors .
The real message of loving your neighbor, is that showing compassion, empathy, solidarity, and sacrificial hospitality is how we love. Especially if they seem different.
We love with compassion, with action, without judgment.
We don’t love by getting the answers right.
In that case we are legalistic text-obsessed lawyers straining at gnats while swallowing camels.
What would communities look like that prioritized compassion and empathy followed by active expressions of hospitality ? Imagine if all of the energy used to convince people we had the right answer, was translated into active love of neighbor.
That feels, at least a little, like hope in the future repaired.