Who Is My Neighbor?
By: Sarah Norman
Last week, we talked about a big question, why did God create the world. We explored several facets of this conversation, but ultimately the answer is, God created the world to bring himself glory. This week, our pastor posed another question, similar, but more difficult, especially in the polarized and tense times we live in. Why did God create us? Specifically, why did God create all 7 billion people currently living, 190 nations, 650 unique ethnic people groups?
This is a question that is easy to ignore as someone part of the majority culture living in a small rural town in North Carolina. I am not faced with difficulties relating to this question when I walk outside my door on a daily basis. But that's exactly why I need to face this question and need to consider all the implications to the answer of this question.
Two thousand years ago, things were not so different than they are today. Racism was just as prevalent, especially among God's people, the Jews. We see it explicitly a few times in the gospels. The first time is in John 4 where Jesus purposely goes through Samaria and talks to a Samaritan woman. Jesus broke all kinds of societal rules with this trip. Not only did he talk to a Samaritan who was considered unclean and not worthy to be around, but she was a woman, the worst kind of Samaritan. But Jesus showed her kindness and compassion, breaking social barriers to show His disciples that his good news was not just for Jewish men but for all people, Jew and Gentile, men and women.
Luke 10 gives us another example of how Jesus expected His disciples to break social barriers and show love to everyone. A lawyer tries to trick Jesus and asks him what you must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him to tell him what is written in the law and he answers, “ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself,” (27). And then the man asks who is my neighbor?
I understand this question to my core. I like boundaries and for the most part, I have always followed rules. I would categorize most of my younger years as living in legalism. I added more rules so I wouldn't mess up and then expected others to do the same. So I get this question. He wanted to know how far he needed to go. He wanted to know who his neighbor was. Who was it that he was suppose to love as himself. Were his friends his neighbors? Were his family his neighbors? Were his in-laws his neighbors? Were the people living beside of him, or the people who went to temple with him, or the clients he represented in court his neighbors? Where did it stop. When we have spent our whole lives in a homogeneous society, it's hard for us to think outside our bubble. Jesus' answer to the lawyer's question was groundbreaking.
Jesus told the lawyer a parable. A Jewish man was walking on the road and was attacked by robbers when he was left for dead. A priest saw him, did nothing and passed him by. Stopping to help a man covered in blood, almost dead would have left him unclean and would have required him to perform a ritual cleansing. The man's life was not worth the trouble. Then a Levite saw the man and passed him by as well, probably for the same reason. Then a Samaritan man saw the man lying in the road. He saw the state he was in, and he had compassion on him. The story gives no indication of hesitation because he was Jewish. It says he helped him. He took him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper to care for him till he could come back. Jesus asked the lawyer which of these 3 were a neighbor to the man. He couldn't even bring himself to say it was the Samaritan, but he did say, “The one who showed him mercy,” (37).
The point of Jesus' parable was to say that literally everyone is your neighbor. It doesn't just stop with the people in your area, the people you like, the people you're comfortable with. Your neighbor is the one who looks different than you, the who who practices the Christian faith differently than you, the one who practices a completely different religion than you, the person who votes differently, the person who identifies with the LGBTQ community, the person of a different socioeconomic class, the person who speaks a different language making it difficult to communicate. When we live in our segregated, homogeneous groups, this is difficult to consider. When we live in the echo chamber of the algorithm that feeds us our news, it becomes easy to see people who believe differently than us as the enemy rather than our neighbor.
Revelation 9:7-10 tells us that John saw a vision of the end of times. It says, “After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This is what eternity will look like, believers of all nations, tribes, ethnicities and languages coming together, praising the God who saved us. If this is what eternity will look like, what are we doing in the present?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a statement that I think about often. He said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” This was in 1963. It made more sense then when segregation and Jim Crow were still legal. But almost 60 years later, it still holds true for much of America. We make the choice to segregate into our comfortable groups on Sunday mornings rather than choosing to look like the kingdom of God and congregate with our brothers and sisters who look different than us. God made us different for a reason. Justin said this so well on Sunday that God's image is so magnificent and so diverse that He couldn't get all of his image into just one type of person, or one people group. He chose to use all the diversity of our world to show us his glorious image. For centuries, American Christians denied this fact. I'm sure it happened outside of America too, but this is our country, so America is where I'll talk about. From the beginning of people being on this land who were not originally here, light skinned people who claimed Christ as their Savior in one breath denied the humanity and dignity of dark skinned people in the next. Christians could have made a difference. They could have stood up and said denying basic human rights to any person was wrong. They could have stood up and said all people were created in God's image and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and enjoyed all the same freedoms in a country that claimed freedom was an inerrant right given by God. But for the most part, Christians did not do this. The association we are apart of was created because southern missionaries refused to give up their “rights” to own slaves. The problem we have in this country, if not created by Christians, was at the very least, perpetuated by the complicity of the Christian community. And because it was created by us, it is our job to take steps to fix it, to reconcile, and to move forward together, not by requiring those who look different than us to conform to our customs, traditions and ways of worship, but by celebrating our differences in Christ and learning to live together in mutual love and respect.
I don't have all the answers concerning this issue, I don't think anyone does. But I do think, as Christians we need to take a look at ourselves and evaluate how we treat our neighbor. We need to figure out who we have difficulty fully accepting and we need to ask God to change our hearts. I believe there are lots of means to change, lots of means to bring about reconciliation, some by changing laws and systems. But it has to begin by being honest with ourselves and asking God where we've been wrong and where our hearts need to change. Sometimes it's scary to ask what needs to be changed or where we are wrong, but God will meet you in the scary places every time.
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