For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” --Galatians 5:13-14
Paul’s words to the Galatians echo the teachings of Jesus. Jesus says that the law is summed up in two commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:38-39). But, what does it mean to “love your neighbor as yourself?” In discussing this with a lawyer (an expert in the Law), the lawyer asks Jesus this question, “Who is my neighbor?” Good question. In response, Jesus tells the well-known “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” a story about a Samaritan caring for a Jew who had been beaten and robbed. (Luke 10:25-37). Samaritans and Jews did not like each other, and did not get along, a point that would not have been missed by the lawyer. But the answer to the lawyer’s question, “Who is a neighbor?” is ultimately this: “The one who shows mercy.” Being a neighbor is to show mercy. Even to one others might ignore, avoid or even disdain. But, what does mercy look like? In the “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats” in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his listeners that the one who feeds the hungry, gives a drink to the thirsty, welcomes the stranger and clothes the naked and cares for the “least of these,” does it to him. (Matthew 25:31-46) That’s mercy. Compassion. Kindness. In the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus teaches that we should even love our enemies! (Matthew 5:43-44). Paul teaches that, through Christ, we are freed from sin, death and the devil, not just for our own sakes, but so that we might serve our neighbors, and to do the good works God has prepared for us to do. (Galatians 5:1-14, Ephesians 2:8-10).
So, in our own time, who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is not just the person who lives in the house across the street, or who sits in the pew next to us on Sunday morning. Our neighbor is also the person who is of a different race, or ethnicity or who speaks a different language, or comes from a different culture. Our neighbor is also the person who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or describes their gender in a way other than we do. Our neighbor is the immigrant at the border, or living in our community, or the refugee seeking asylum from violence and war. Our neighbor is the person who we disagree with on almost every hot button issue out there, who votes the opposite way we do, and who says and posts stuff that makes our blood boil.
The question is, how do we love all these neighbors in the way of Jesus? With mercy, compassion, kindness and servanthood. The way Jesus taught us to love. The way Jesus himself lived. Like the one who, while we were still sinners, gave his life for our own. Luther put it this way in his explanation of the 8th Commandment, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
This “loving our neighbor” business is complex, challenging and never easy. We often fail at it miserably. Sin, death, and evil continue to have their way with us. Lord have mercy on us! And, praise God! In Christ, the Lord does, graciously freeing us through the power of forgiveness so that we might go about the work at loving our neighbors again and again.
Thanks for reading. Pray for those neighbors who you find it hard to love.