One of the better known passages from the Bible is “love your neighbor.” The statement appears at least seven times in the New Testament, and once in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). But for a number of reasons, this is one of the commandments that’s easier said than done.
For one thing, it’s hard to love someone you don’t even like. If we pay attention to what’s going on in our divided society these days, it doesn’t seem as if there’s a lot of loving our neighbors going on. Epithets and curses being exchanged by opposing sides, lots of shouting down and very little listening. This is one reason Jesus, in discussing the command, made this seemingly outlandish admonition:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may sons of your Father in heaven…. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:41-46).
How would you rate yourself in doing this? I’m afraid I wouldn’t get a passing grade on this, at least at times. This is one specific area where I’m still very much “working out (my) salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Another factor is how we define the word “neighbor.” In Luke 10:25-37, an “expert in the law” decided to confront Jesus about how to attain eternal life. The questioner summed up the Mosaic law in two commands, “‘Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.” But then the religious leader asked for more clarity. “And who is my neighbor?” In response, the Lord told the parable we know as “the good Samaritan,” a term we commonly use still today to describe a stranger’s act of kindness toward someone else in need.
In the story, Jesus was saying our “neighbor” is anyone to whom we might have an opportunity to provide an act of service, whether we know them or not.
Recently, however, I was reminded of a reality that also impedes our ability to love our neighbors. It was “Wave All Your Fingers at Your Neighbor” Day, and one of those online questionnaires asked about familiarity with neighbors, the folks who live right next door or across the street. The survey asked a simple question: “When was the last time you interacted with a neighbor?” The results were interesting:
21% of the respondents said “within the last 24 hours.”
22% said “within the last couple of days.”
16% said “within the last week.”
20% said “it’s been awhile,” and 2% said they don’t have any neighbors.
As a boy growing up, we had front porches for catching the evening breeze, and it was rare when we didn’t see and interact with our neighbors. We didn’t have air conditioning to keep us huddled inside to keep cool. We didn’t have a plethora of TV channels, not to mention apps on smartphones and tablets to keep our eyes looking down instead of outside to see what the neighbors were up to. We were much more inclined to have occasional neighborhood get-togethers.
It’s not unusual today to have neighbors just down the street whom we’ve never met. And it’s not just our own reluctance to take the initiative to socialize; the neighbors seem equally reticent. So we spend many of our days without seeing or hearing from our neighbors; how can we love our neighbors when we don’t even know who they are?
I’m as guilty of this as anyone, so I’m not preaching – unless to lecture myself. Somehow, despite societal pressures to isolate, we need to do a better job at reconnecting with our immediate neighbors, as well as “neighbors” we might happen to encounter during the course of a typical day.
Mr. Rogers said, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” but how can we know unless we look out the window or step outside our doors to confirm it?