What do your garage door opener, your treadmill, your air pods, and your back deck all have in common? Give up? They are all modern inventions that work against your efforts to be a good neighbor. The garage door closes you off from your neighbors as soon as you get home, the treadmill prevents you from walking or running through the neighborhood, the air pods send the message “don’t talk to me,” and the back deck has replaced the front porch which used to be a communal gathering spot. I want to contrast our current reality, which encourages isolation, to Jesus’ own words on this subject in Matthew 22:36-37. The passage starts with what is called the Great Commandment, Jesus is questioned:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus responds by summing up all of the Old Testament law in these two statements. I like to visualize these commands in the shape of a cross. The vertical post is the love between God and us, ‘love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ The horizontal crossbeam is the love that connects us and other people, ‘love your neighbors as yourself.’ At the center of this love is Christ. It is only by his help and through his sacrifice that we can live out these expressions of love.
The Real Meaning Behind “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”
The first statement, the call to love God, is from Deuteronomy 6:5 known as the Shema. It was repeated twice every day by devout Jews and was known as an overarching obligation for each individual. Love for God was defined by giving Him your entire existence, heart, soul, and mind. But the real surprise here is the second commandment. It’s a quote of a more obscure Old Testament command from Leviticus 19:18, love your neighbor as yourself. What does that mean?
This isn’t a statement about loving yourself more so you can give more love away. Jesus understands that love for self is a given. He doesn’t command it; He assumes it. All of us have a powerful instinct for self-preservation and self-fulfillment. We all want to be happy. We all want to live with satisfaction. We want food for ourselves. We want a place to live for ourselves. We want protection from violence and meaningful activities to fill our days. We want friends to like us and spend some time with us. We want our lives to count in some way. All this is self-love. Self-love is the deep longing to diminish pain and increase happiness. That’s what Jesus starts with when he says, “as yourself.”
But here is the radical teaching, “As you love yourself, so love your neighbor.” This will keep your self-love properly regulated and protect it from moving into pride and narcissism. Now this is very threatening and almost overwhelming. Because we feel immediately that if we take Jesus seriously, we will not just have to love others “AS we love ourselves,” but we will have to love them “INSTEAD OF loving ourselves.” But what it really means is to love your neighbors ‘in the same way’ that you love yourself. In the same way you long to be accepted – seek for your neighbor to be accepted. In the same way you long to be fulfilled – help your neighbor to be fulfilled. In the same way you long to be safe – seek for your neighbor to be safe. In other words, make your self-giving the same as the measure of your self-seeking.
The shocking thing is that Jesus seems to put this love for neighbor in the same category as our love for God on the importance scale. John says it more explicitly in 1 John 4:19-21:
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
So, take that in for a moment. Jesus has essentially summed up the whole of the scriptures in this two-part commandment. One of them involves our capacity to love God, and one of them involves the capacity to love our neighbors. He’s saying to us, “These are the two most important things I can tell you about being a Christian and following me.”
I’m concerned that many Christians have become numb to the commandment to love our neighbors. And we must not!
We need to reflect on why this essential command has lost its prominence. Perhaps it feels overwhelming, or maybe we’re unsure where to start. Trying to love everyone can lead to loving no one, making the task seem insurmountable. We often reduce this great commandment to slogans and theories, as highlighted in Dave Runyan’s book, “The Art of Neighboring.” It’s easy to have theoretical love for neighbors without genuinely loving them, inadvertently neglecting Jesus’ crucial command. Let’s prioritize what matters most: loving our neighbors. Let’s explore three questions arising from this commandment from Jesus.
3 Questions about Being a Good Neighbor
1. Who is my neighbor?
This is also the first follow-up question that was asked of Jesus when he made this assertion. He answered in Luke chapter 10:29. A crowd has gathered around Jesus, and a lawyer in the crowd cuts right to the chase and asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. “how can I get in on Christianity?” Jesus turns the question back around and asks, ‘What do you think?’ The man responds with the right answer, Jesus’ own great commandment, love God and neighbor. Jesus says, “Yes! That’s it! Now,go do that and you’ll inherit eternal life.” But then the lawyer asks a follow-up question,
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
It’s important to see that this man who asked the question was trying to “justify himself,” which means he was looking for a loophole. I’m amazed at our ability to explain away the clear teachings of the bible. Mark Twain once accurately asserted, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.” Loving our neighbors can be tough, and it’s easy to start looking for loopholes.
- His yard has knee-high weeds. We should probably just call the code enforcement office.
- They put their fence a foot onto my property I should probably file a complaint with the township.
- The kids across the street seem unsupervised and out of control, I should probably call children’s services.
- Or maybe I should just close my doors, draw the blinds, and pretend it’s none of my business.
We try to find all kinds of loopholes instead of actually loving our neighbors. So, in response to the question “who is my neighbor,” Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. This is a familiar story, and Jesus’ clear answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” is “Every person in your path.”
An ancient Jewish book of wisdom called Sirach (12:1–4), tells its readers to not help a sinner. So, the lawyer’s question is really an attempt to argue that we should be allowed to love some people and not others. And that my responsibility is only to love those who are like me. This is why Jesus picks a Samaritan as the hero of the story because such a person would have been considered a “non-neighbor” in the lawyer’s eyes.
The story of the Good Samaritan is the story of a man walking down the road and being overtaken by thieves or robbers. He’s beaten up, stripped of his clothes, and left half dead. Two religious leaders walk by and do nothing. This reminds us that it is possible to be a religious person and still be a crappy neighbor. Being religious doesn’t guarantee any kind of compassion. But a third person, a Samaritan, walks by and helps bandage up the beaten man and takes him to receive medical care and pays for his stay. As Jesus finishes telling this captivating story, he answers the original question by changing the question. This is one of his moves that’s so brilliant. In vs :36, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor…?” The question is not “who is my neighbor,” but the question now is “who proved to be a neighbor.”
In other words, it’s not a matter of parsing and choosing who you’ll love, it comes down to what kind of person are you? True Christians don’t try to define our neighbors as only those we have chemistry with. Rather our question should be whether we’ve proven to be a neighbor to the people that God has put in our path. Starting with our literal neighbors. You see, the temptation with a story like this is to say, “Jesus said everyone is our neighbor, which is an unattainable goal, so I’m not going to do anything. But instead of getting overwhelmed, why not take a baby step and acknowledge maybe the first group of people God put in your path are your actual neighbors. Let’s start there. Who is my neighbor? It’s every person in your path. But there’s a second question,
Related Resource: Free Guide to Leading Anyone to Jesus (Modern Evangelism Guide)
2. Why should I love my neighbor?
Here’s the far-reaching, big-picture answer. Because it’s God’s key strategy to reach the world.
It’s easy to look around at what’s going on in our world and become overwhelmed. What has happened? It seems like things are going from bad to worse. There are wars and refugees, there are powerful people abusing their power, there are groups of people not pulling their weight or doing their part, there are innocent lives being murdered, and there is disequilibrium between races and genders and economic statuses. There is endless fighting and bickering and downright hatred. And we know this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not what Jesus envisioned for our world. We know we as individuals should do more or at least do something to make an impact. We can’t just wait for someone else to step up, but what do we do?
Well, what if you started by looking around your own neighborhood? The territory around where you live? What problems do you see, what opportunities exist? Where are the open doors? Who are the change agents? What are the prevailing needs? What if we started right where we live?
But, you say, there is too much to overcome even in my neighborhood. I’m old and my neighbors are young, or vice versa. Or my neighbors play loud music, or my neighbors work strange hours, or my neighbor mows the lawn in a speedo, or my neighbor is grumpy, or my neighbor doesn’t speak English. I can’t even get past that stuff… let alone make meaningful change. But the good Samaritan shows us that differences, even pretty extreme differences, can’t stand in the way of loving our neighbors. It’s one of the shocking elements of this story in Luke 10. Jesus gave the wrong punch line!
I think everyone in the crowd expected his usual contrast of the Pharisees and Levites with the common Jewish person or even a tax collector or prostitute. I think they expected him to say – the religious leaders walked by the man in need on the side of the road, but a tax collector came along and helped him, he is the hero of the story, he was a true neighbor. But Jesus shocked everybody by making a bitter enemy the hero. A Samaritan. Samaritans were hated by the Jews going way back. The closest modern parallel in our day would be to say that a member of a terror cell was a true neighbor to the man in need. You see, by using a Samaritan as the hero in this story, Christ makes it very clear that there must be no boundaries on our compassion toward neighbors. Followers of Jesus will see past differences, different values, different beliefs, different religions, genders or ethnicities. We will show compassion to them because Jesus loved us and he loves them too and he wants to reach them through us. This is his plan A to reach the world.
Remember, Jesus said in his own words that, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on your ability to love them well.” That’s pretty heavy stuff – this is really important, and life-altering. Jesus knew that for the redemption of the planet to really happen, Christians needed to be at their best on Monday, not Sunday. The mission must happen at home and not just at church! He knew that the most effective way for the good news to spread was not through church services, seminars, not by books or podcasts or worship albums, not by disseminating information more effectively than the next religion. It wasn’t by winning arguments or debates about the existence of God. He knew that the most effective way for his message to spread around the world was by ordinary people like you and me acting out practical demonstrations of love to people we brush up against day in and day out, and to leave them scratching their heads about our good and generous lives. And if every Christian on the planet were to take this commandment seriously, the world would not be able to refuse the compelling and overwhelming love of Christ that they experience from their neighbors.
This is a good plan, and you have a very important role in this plan, love your neighbors. What if you thought of your neighborhood as your own little parish. What if you thought of yourself as the pastor of your neighborhood, the person of peace on your block? Even if you’re in a rural setting and you can’t see your neighbors for miles – they’re still there. Think of your dwelling like a little light in the midst of the darkness – what if you were more intentional about having that light shine a little brighter?
The message of Christ wasn’t meant to depend on televangelists, or mass marketing schemes, or commercialization of Christian products… it was meant to spread from person to person – house to house – neighborhood to neighborhood, as one by one people began to see the power and potential of the Christian faith in the lives of their believing neighbors. Loving our neighbors represents Jesus’ key strategy in reaching this world with the gospel. Here’s the third question:
3. How can I get started at being a good neighbor?
Let me suggest a memorable 3 step patter, Slowing, Seeing, Serving.
Being a good neighbor begins with spiritual perception. But it’s impossible to perceive if we’re moving too fast. And most of us are moving way too fast. We rush to work, we rush to meetings, we rush to workout, we rush to our kids’ activities, we rush to dinner, we rush, rush, rush. And in the course of our rushing we fail to perceive what’s happening all around us. The good Samaritan slowed down enough to see the need of the man in his path. This leads us to the second step,
My most frequently prayed prayer over the course of my lifetime is simply, “God help me to see what you see.” Give me your eyes to see what’s actually happening all around me in any given moment. Now, please understand that seeing the needs around you through God’s eyes doesn’t guarantee that loving your neighbors will happen. All three of the passers-by in the story of the Good Samaritan saw the need and still only one did something about it. But seeing needs is the starting place. If you slowed down enough, maybe you would see the neighbor who hasn’t come out in a while is struggling with depression, or the neighbor who’s been gone a lot is taking care of a dying parent, or the neighbor who had a police car drive up is dealing with a child who’s in trouble. God help us to see what you see. Most of us aren’t doing this enough. We’re moving too fast, we’re distracted, we’re in a hurry, and frankly, we’re apathetic about the lives of those around us. Every day we walk by people desperate for the love of Christ, laying alongside the proverbial roads of our neighborhoods because we’re fixated on our phones, our next project, or the million activities that our kids are involved in and we’re just missing stuff. We’re not slowing or seeing. And like the Priest and Levite, we are looking at people, but we’re not seeing the needs. We’re crossing to the other side of the road and moving on with our own lives. But there’s a third step,
Not only did the Samaritan slow down and see the need, but he also served. Starting in Luke 10:34 notice all the action verbs that describe what the Samaritan did. Eight verbs representing eight acts of service,
“He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper…”
Each simple act demonstrated compassion. He showed love and service to his neighbor in a practical, timely, and unselfish way. Think about it, the fact that he put the man on his own donkey means that the Samaritan walked instead. His love made a statement. This kind of selfless serving has always been a cornerstone of the Christian faith.
In Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity, he describes one of the critical aspects of the rise of Christianity in the ancient world. It was the Christian response during the great plagues. There was a devastating plague in 165 A.D. it went through and killed almost 25% of the entire population in the major cities of the Roman Empire. Huge numbers of people were dying, and then just a hundred years later, there was another horrible plague called the Cyprian Plague. The plagues hit, and it was a catastrophe of epic proportions. All societal rules and mores were out the door. Mothers and fathers were throwing children into the streets before they were dead, hoping to avoid contagion. People were betraying friends, and everybody was just in for themselves. Doctors in the cities took off for the hills.
But Bishop Dionysius describes the activity of the Christians at the time, “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick … attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.” By 350 A.D., 56% of the Roman Empire was Christian. And we begin to get a picture of why. It wasn’t a slick program. It wasn’t a creative strategy. It wasn’t dynamic teaching. It wasn’t beautiful buildings that grew the church. It was Christians who embodied the gospel and lived it out sacrificially among their neighbors, even sometimes to the sacrifice of their own lives.
There are all kinds of invisible plagues affecting the people around us. Broken marriages, out-of-control kids, suffocating schedules, imprisoning addictions, anxiety, depression, stress, hopelessness, anger, affairs, the shackles of success and striving. It’s all around us. Will we be the ones who slow down? Who sees? Who serves? Are you committed to loving your neighbor as yourself? Jesus said this was the most important thing next to loving God that Christians should be doing in this world. This is what separates us, this is what gains us credibility among the skeptics and the mockers. It’s our love for our actual neighbors. I know what some of you are thinking, so let me throw in a 4th question for free…
4. Do I have to love really annoying neighbors?
Maybe you have a tough case. And you’re thinking right now, “You know what? I don’t even like my neighbors let alone love them!” C.S. Lewis had some great advice. He wrote, “Do not waste time bothering with whether you ‘love’ your neighbor… act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you love someone, you will presently come to love him.” So, if you can’t muster up any lovey-dovey emotions, just start acting like it instead!
I want to remind you today that you don’t live where you live by accident. And you may say, “You’re darned right it’s not an accident. In fact, I picked out that house or apartment or duplex or condo because I liked the floor plan or I liked the school system, or I liked the curb appeal.” That may all be true, but that’s not why you live there. Listen to these words from Acts 17:26-27
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
You live where you live because God determined that you should live there. He placed you at that address for a reason. This passage says that God determined; that He allotted periods and boundaries of your dwelling place. God PUT you there for a reason! And it’s not just so that you could be comfortable or have place of respite from the world. Those things are really important and really great. But he also put you there so you could shine a light to others around you. I love the posture that this passage takes because it says that when people start seeking God and feeling their way toward God that they’re going to have some handles to grab on to and give them stability. Those handles are you! We need to rediscover a “theology of place.” You are where you are because God put you there.
So go ahead and be a good neighbor. Jesus said it’s one of the most important things you can do in this lifetime!