Loving our Neighbor

Last week I shared my hope that 2018 would be a year focused on the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-38). Inevitably we ask the question, with the lawyer in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?” To this question, Jesus responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. To the lawyer who asked Jesus this question, Samaritans were enemies—ethnically and theologically impure people with a penchant for violence against Jews.

As Tim Keller points out in his book Generous Justice, in this parable Jesus illustrates the nature of love, which includes, “caring for people’s material and economic needs.” Also, because the protagonist in the story is a Samaritan who helps a Jewish person in need, the definition of neighbor is vastly expanded beyond our conventional understanding of the term. Keller notes that, “By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need—regardless of race, politics, class, and religion—is your neighbor.” So, loving our neighbor as ourselves means treating our neighbor the way we would like to be treated in a similar situation. If I were wounded, lying in a ditch, I’d want someone to help me, regardless of the person’s ethnicity or religion.

This story was in my heart and mind last Sunday evening when I, along with a small group from Christ Church, spent the evening at a mosque in North Scottsdale. Over the past few months I’ve gotten to know the imam, a young man from Egypt. He invited me to an event they were hosting, designed to create opportunities for Christians and Jews to visit the mosque, share a meal, and hear a lecture from a Muslim scholar on the similarities between the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—followed by a question and answer session.

As an individual, I find events like this stimulating, as engaging across boundaries of culture, language, and religious tradition is something that God has given me a lot of grace to do. And yet, throughout the evening there were moments of discomfort, whether in observing the prayer service or internally wrestling with theological questions having deeply practical consequences regarding violence, the treatment of women, and the interaction between a democratic society and religious pluralism. These issues are important, and I’m thankful that good Christian reflection is taking place around them. For example, I’ve been helped and challenged by Matthew Kaemingk’s new book, which deals with the broader questions of Muslim immigration from a distinctly Christian theological perspective.

In these moments of discomfort, however, and the temptation to experience my dinner companions as abstract issues or problems, I was reminded of how often Jesus ate with people who disagreed with him, whether the self-righteous Pharisees or the various types of “sinners” mentioned in the gospels. Jesus, it seems, didn’t need to agree with his table companions on theology, ethics, or politics. Accepting an invitation and sharing a meal was part of Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel, that God was at work in and through Jesus to show radical love and favor to sinful people. Jesus crossed boundaries to communicate the love of God, and it seems that, in our call to love our neighbor as ourselves, learning to cross boundaries is essential.

Two further points are worth considering along these lines. First, in Jesus’ divinity, he had perfect knowledge. We, on the other hand, do not. So, even as we cross boundaries to love our neighbors, it is important to come not only as a lover but as a learner as well, as our neighbors almost always have something to teach us. In this way we are unlike Jesus. Second, as we inevitably discover things about our neighbors that make us uncomfortable, it’s totally appropriate to engage with them around those things. I was thankful that, in our time at the mosque, questions were asked, respectfully, about ISIS, polygamy, anti-conversion laws and other difficult issues. The important point, however, is that the questions were being asked, honestly, in the context of a shared meal, and, it is hoped, a context of deepening friendship.

It’s certainly possible that, for reasons of physical or emotional safety, or simple rejection, it may become necessary to withdraw from relating to a given neighbor. However, we usually won’t know this until we make an overture as both a lover and a learner.

I imagine that each of us has someone in our lives that God is calling us to love, someone to whom we might represent Christ, and from whom we might learn and grow. Let us pray together about this and share stories about how we inevitably experience God in surprising ways in and through the neighbors, made in God’s image and for whom Christ died, that He is calling us to love.