For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14 (NET)
My wife and I were recently rummaging through a department store looking for sales on winter clothes. I came across a few sweaters that I was sure would be winners and walked over to get her opinion. Holding my favorite one up I asked, “what do you think?” She smiled and said, “you’ll look like Mr. Rogers,” and to her dismay I replied, “perfect, that’s what I was going for!”
Fred Rodgers, one of the most endearing American icons of children’s entertainment, is best known for hosting Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood – a show he created because he wanted to change the way television addressed children. Each episode began the same way, Mr. Rodgers would come home and change into his sneakers and cardigan sweater while singing the show’s theme song that asked, “won’t you be my neighbor?”
Rodgers was incredibly engaging and seemed to deeply understand the power of a tool like the television – an impersonal box that can give a host a seemingly personal presence in millions of homes across far distances. I’m sure his winsome character left many children feeling like they really were Mr. Rodgers’ neighbors. Few of his fans would ever actually meet him in person, and fewer still actually lived next door to him or would ever know him as a friend or family member, but does that mean they weren’t his neighbors?
Have you ever thought about how tricky the connotation of the word neighbor becomes in a culture where it’s possible for us to spend more time communicating online than we do talking to the people right in front of us? Technology today gives us an enormous amount of resources to stay connected with, check-in on and reassure our friends that we are with them through the ups and downs of life, even if we are far away. It’s hard to believe that we could ever feel lonely nowadays, especially when popular social media sites confirm that we have hundreds of “friends.” Even so, sometimes it feels like our neighborhoods have become huge, but are filled with fewer and fewer true neighbors.
Who is my neighbor?
This question should matter deeply to anyone who claims to follow the way of Jesus. One time when Jesus was tested on his theological knowhow, this question sparked one of the most memorable parables of his ministry – the parable of the good Samaritan.
Luke 10:25-37 (NET)
25 Now an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you understand it?” 27 The expert answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But the expert, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, but when he saw the injured man he passed by on the other side. 32 So too a Levite, when he came up to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. 34 He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever else you spend, I will repay you when I come back this way.’ 36 Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 The expert in religious law said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” So Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
Why was the clarifying question about who a neighbor is so important to the expert? Because at that time, a number of people had come to accept the idea that God’s desire was for them to focus on loving, in particular, people from their same ethnic and religious group – that if they showed compassion for their own people, it would be an example to others.
Jesus’ answer would have challenged the expert’s opinion and lifestyle, and hopefully it challenges ours today as well. In Jesus’ story, two people from the expert and Jesus’ ethnic and religious group lacked compassion for someone in need, while someone from a different group – a Samaritan – was propped up to look like a hero. Honestly, it was probably a bit insulting, but hopefully it helped the point stick.
In our efforts to pursue godliness, we might find it easiest to focus our compassion on particular groups of people – like our family and friends, or people with needs that are justifiable in our mind. But if we want to follow the way of Jesus, we can’t use the question of who a neighbor is to help us narrow our focus to a small group of acceptable people. For Jesus, neighbors were in a much larger and less particular group. They are the diverse and unanticipated people we run into as we are going about our daily lives – the people right in front of us.
The question shouldn’t be, who is my neighbor? The question should be, am I being a neighbor?
Be a neighbor
Jesus’ answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” was simply to be one. Be the type of person who treats the people right in front of you with mercy. Mercy isn’t a common thing. We are often tempted to treat others according to what we may think they deserve for their actions. We’re tempted to stereotype and treat others according to what their presumed station demands. We’re tempted to standby when we think someone has it coming to them. If we want to be neighbors, then it doesn’t matter if we think someone has it coming to them, it doesn’t matter if we think they deserve it; neighbors are easily identified by the mercy they give to those around them.
In our growing neighborhoods, let’s not forget to be neighbors. May our lives be like the invitation, “won’t you be my neighbor?”