Thursday, August 2, 2018

Love Your Neighbor. But Which Ones?

When considering God’s commands for mankind, we typically think about the “do-nots,” especially those specified in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, and elsewhere. These include: Do not worship other gods; do not profane the name of God; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie; do not covet what others have.

But “don’t” commandments like these are relatively easy to observe. We would know if we murdered someone, or committed adultery, or stole something. If we’re told not to do something, and then we do it, we’d have to be in denial not to realize we’ve broken the command from God. The more difficult commandments are the ones framed in the positive, things the Lord said we should do.

Maybe that’s why, when a religious leader asked Jesus which is the greatest of all commandments – as recounted in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 – He didn’t offer a lists of don’ts. Instead, Jesus summarized the intent of all the commandments by stating two “simple” things to do: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There are no commandments greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

Sounds easy, right? Not really. How do we know when – and if – we’ve fully observed either one? The greatest commandment – to love God with all that we are and all we have – has been the subject of countless sermons, and many more to come. For now, I’d like to look at the second great commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

To underscore just how hard “loving your neighbor” can be, one time Jesus told another leader – called “an expert in the law” – that to inherit eternal life, he also should love God, and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Seeking clarification, this official inquired, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Maybe this question was sincere; maybe the guy was just looking for some kind of exception. You can’t really love everyone, can you?  Regardless, it was a good question. One we each should ask of ourselves.

It applies to the ongoing debate about immigration on the southern borders of the United States. Opinions and positions are strong, and in many respects, polarized on this question. But I think it applies just as much – or perhaps more – to “neighbors” who without question reside legally within our national borders. 

Obviously, our “neighbor” could be someone who lives in the house or apartment next door, or across the street. It could be a person, couple or family we meet at church, whether we know them well or not. The “neighbor” Jesus is talking about could be the individual in the next office, or cubicle, or a person we meet on a sales call.

If we broaden the description, we might find our “neighbor” is the homeless person begging for cash downtown, or living in a makeshift tent under a bridge we drive over every day. Our neighbor could be a military veteran, homeless or not, who has returned from a field of battle bearing injuries and scars, some we can readily see – and some that we can’t. Most times, mental and emotional damages aren’t as evident or easy to identify. Are we as individuals, and as a nation, doing all we can to help these “neighbors,” not only to meet their immediate needs, but also so they can return to productive living?

One group of “neighbors” too often overlooked consists of native Americans, men, women and children who live on reservations, often in extreme poverty. Many of us have no idea of the plight they endure every day, or that the rates of suicide and alcoholism among American Indians far exceed the national average for all segments of society. How well are we loving these “neighbors”?

So while our elected officials continue to wrangle over questions surrounding immigrants who seek – legally or not – to cross our borders in hopes of becoming beneficiaries of the so-called “American dream,” we’d be remiss not to search our own hearts and ask how well we’re loving and tending to our “neighbors” who are already here.

Because, as 1 Timothy 5:8 tells us, But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 

And, as we seek to become more diligent in loving our neighbors as ourselves, we find ourselves drawing closer to loving God the way we should. Because as Jesus said,whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

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