Who is My Neighbor?

Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. This leads to the somewhat obvious follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Read Luke 10:25-37, Acts 17:16-28 here.

Listen here: 

How many of you have ever seen the show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood?[1]

Mister-Rogers-Neighborhood-TV-show-on-PBS-canceled-or-renewed-590x332This year is the 50th anniversary of when the show began, which is why there is a recent movie about the show that we’re going to watch here together this afternoon.[2]

Rogers started off every show singing a song about neighbors that asks the question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Did you ever wonder why he asked that particular question?  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it is my understanding that it answers that question for us in a variety of ways.  Since Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, I’m fairly certain that at the core the reason was the words of Jesus that we read today from Luke 10.[3]  We read there that the teachers of the law ask Jesus about the greatest commandment. We focused on the first part of this commandment last week:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. (Luke 10:27a)

This week we’re focusing on the second part:

Love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27b)

Jesus confirms that the law teacher has the right answer. “Yep, you got it.  Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:28)

And you’d think if that teacher were really wise, he’d just leave well enough alone and move on, but he doesn’t.  He wants to split hairs a little.  The text says he wanted to justify himself.  The Message version says he was looking for a loophole.

We talked last week about how there’s really no wiggle room in the first part.

Love God with all you’ve got. (Deuteronomy 6:5 MSG)

But maybe there’s some wiggle room in the second part.  So he asks the somewhat obvious follow-up question:

Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29)

Jesus tells a story to answer that question.  In the story, there’s a man who’s been beaten up by robbers and who is laying by the side of the road.  A priest and a Levite come along, but they avoid the man and move to the other side of the road and keep on walking.  A Samaritan comes along and helps the man, keeps taking care of him through the night, and leaves money with the innkeeper to make sure the man is cared for over the next week or two.[4]

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_SamaritanWe could easily spend a good deal of time talking about why the priest and the Levite avoided the man.  There are points in Jewish law that would justify both helping and not helping.  The one who does help, the Samaritan, was also someone that the teacher of the law would have avoided, because there was a long tradition of enmity between Samaritans and Jews.

As we listen to this story, which of the characters do you identify with most?  Are you the questioner, the law teacher?  Or the injured person lying on the side of the road?  Or the priest and Levite avoiding that man?  Or the Samaritan?

Of course, we all hope to be the Samaritan.  We even have a fund here at the church called the Good Samaritan fund  where we set aside money that’s given specifically to help people.  Lots of churches call their funds by that same name.

At different times in our lives we may be different people in this story.  Today I challenge us to be the ones who hear God’s call, and who love God with all we’ve got, and who want to live out God’s love by doing what God calls us to do:

NeighborIn the story about the good Samaritan, there’s a very specific situation, a man who is hurt and needs help, and so when we think about loving our neighbors we often jump right to thinking about the helping things we do, like giving food or money, and those are very good things.  I’m not in the least discounting those.  We are called to be caring, helpful people.  But sometimes the needs are not so obvious, and we have to get to know people more to know how to help.

What if what Jesus really meant was to literally love your neighbor.

LoveThyNeighborAsThyselfHave you seen one of these billboards along the highway?  They’re quite provocative, and maybe a little bit sarcastic, but they cut right to the heart of the matter.

The definition of neighbor can be rather broad. One way to read the story of the good Samaritan is that it is telling us to work on making contact with all those people we normally avoid.  Who do we avoid?  Or maybe just fail to notice?

It’s kind of funny, if you think about it, that some of the people we are most likely to ignore are those people wearing nametags.  You know, the ones at the checkout at Walmart or the grocery store, or taking our order at McDonalds or Sonic, or waiting on us at the restaurant.  We can easily just do what we need to do at any of those places and never even make eye contact with that employee, let alone notice their name, or, better yet, use their name.  I know that some of us just naturally DO engage and have conversations, but not all of us do.

What Jesus is demonstrating in his story about the good Samaritan is that everybody is somebody that God loves, and everybody is our neighbor.  And that fits with the Merriam Webster dictionary’s second definition of the word neighbor:

Meriam Webster Neighbor“Fellow man.”  Notice that the second definition even includes Jesus’ words, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” But look at what the first definition says.  “One living or located near another.”

Literally our neighbor is the person living near us.  Who is my neighbor?  One of the big challenges in this is that we don’t get to choose.

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next door neighbour. — Gilbert Chesterton

God makes us all.  That’s exactly what Paul’s words in Acts 17 tell us.  He’s talking to the people in Athens, explaining to them who God is by explaining what God has done.  He says:

From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live. (Acts 17:26)

Wherever you are, God has put you there with those neighbors who live near you.  Some of us were able to choose where we live, and others had to take what was available to them.  But even if we did choose where we live, we probably didn’t get to choose who lives next door. Even if you live where there are no nearby neighbors, there are still neighbors, you just have to work harder to get to them.

God put us where we are for a reason:

God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:27)

Open your bulletin and take out the card that looks like this:

Layout 1This is a picture of your neighborhood.  That’s you in the center.  Our challenge for the coming weeks is to fill in the other blocks with the names of our neighbors.  Do you know their names?

I have a confession to make.  I have been feeling personally challenged about this sermon and the two that I’ll preach in the next two weeks, all of them on this theme of getting to know our neighbors, because I, like many of you, don’t know my neighbors and I’m apprehensive about taking the step of finding out who they are.

On my card I can fill in one block.  I know one of my neighbors is RJ.  But the reason I know him is that RJ is very outgoing and he came over and introduced himself.  Whenever we are coming or going and RJ’s outside, RJ always says hi.  RJ is awesome.  Seriously.  RJ knows that Rob plays the guitar because he’s seen us lugging the guitars in and out of the house, and yesterday RJ brought Rob a handful of guitar picks that he made himself.  RJ is a beautiful example of being a loving neighbor.

But other than RJ, I only know my other neighbors as “the guy who sharpens things” which I know because he has a sign in his yard, or “the people who run the hotel across the street.”  I don’t know their names because I’ve never talked to them.  To fill in the other blocks on my card, I’m going to have to work at it. I’m going to have to look for opportunities to introduce myself.

This isn’t going to happen all in one week.  However, I will ask you next week if you’ve learned any of the names of your neighbors, and your answers will be a third of your grade in this class.  No, not really. This isn’t school and there are no grades.  This is ultimately between you and God and your neighbor.  And it’s not just this week or even just for the next three weeks.  We’ll be talking about this more in the coming months.  So if this takes some time, that’s cool.  You can let it happen organically, if you want.  Just don’t avoid your neighbor and miss an opportunity.

Some of you might already be able to fill in all the blanks.  If that’s you, your challenge is to go the next step.  How well do you know them?

Remember the billboard? Jesus really meant it when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I read a story this week that was the saddest love story.  It’s about a boy and girl who met when they were classmates in school.  The boy fell in love with the girl, and the girl fell in love with the boy, but both of them were too shy to ask each other out on a date.  Because of this, they each thought the other didn’t like them.  So they graduated and went off to college without ever getting together.  They stayed distant, and because they were in love they never got married to anyone else, and they died alone.

God loves us so much that he couldn’t stay distant from us.  Instead he came to earth to be our neighbor.

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. (John 1:14 MSG)

God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to be our neighbor.  Jesus asks us to love our neighbors, and to do that we need to know them.  This is our mission.

Last week when we talked about loving God with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength, I asked you to consider what area of your life might be getting in the way of being a listener.  Today give some thought to whatever area of your life might be getting in the way of being a neighbor.

The first step in doing any of this is to talk to God about it.

I recently started using an app on my phone that walks me through my prayer time.  I’ve put in all my family and friends and church members.  It gives me different scriptures to pray over, and then there are screens that prompt me to pray for people and current events, and then there’s this screen:

Screenshot_20181102-095821_PrayerMate croppedWhen I was setting up the lists, I couldn’t think of names of people who don’t know Jesus.  The thing is, there are people, but I just don’t know where they stand.  So every day, when this screen comes up, my prayer is that God will show me who to put on that page.  I know that he will, just like I know God will help each of us as we seek to get to know our neighbors.  With God, what seems impossible becomes possible.

Who is my neighbor? At the end of the story that Jesus told the law teacher, Jesus asked him if he understood:

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

[The law teacher] said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)

These words are our mission, very much like Jesus’ words at the end of his time here on earth.  The great commission:

Go and make disciples. (Matt. 20:19)

We make disciples by loving Jesus so much that our love spills over into our words and actions.  That’s why we need to first love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and then love our neighbors as ourselves.

Let us go and love our neighbors.


[1] Still available to watch on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mr+rogers+neighborhood+full+episodes and still being broadcast on PBS

[2] Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) http://www.focusfeatures.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor/

[3] https://www.vox.com/summer-movies/2018/6/7/17433834/mister-fred-rogers-neighborhood-wont-you-be-my-neighbor-review and https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/7/26/17616380/fred-rogers-documentary-2018-mister-rogers-neighborhood

[4] Darrell Bock, NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Zondervan) p.300ff

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