Who Is My Neighbor?

Matthew Parris over at The Spectator struggles with a question many Christians I suspect are also struggling with:

Christianity has lost its bearings, as I’ve argued here before; but I don’t believe secular thinking has found them. The ache I describe — the lost chord — is (as, again, I’ve argued here) our failure to answer the question Christ himself never really faced up to, though He was asked it. ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Jesus appears to reply ‘Everyone’, but this is impossible as we cannot help everyone equally, and need an order of priorities. Who, and in what order? My elderly former secretary with severe dementia? The drug addict on the street? The migrant? The orphaned Syrian? Show us the mark and we’ll try to meet it, but we genuinely don’t know what to aim for, and no voice from our own age advises with authority. Who is our neighbour? This year’s agonising pictures of desperate migrants have sharpened the aching question in many western hearts.

Of course, this whole notion of “love your neighbor” and “welcome the stranger” isn’t simply Gospel — it’s also a central message of the Torah. But Jesus gets very specific in Luke 10 with the parable of The Good Samaritan.

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back. ’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29–37 ESV)

Yes, Jesus does appear here to say everyone is out neighbor, but note — he doesn’t. The young man in this parable asks the “who is my neighbor?” question because he wants to know who his neighbor isn’t, who he doesn’t owe anything to. Jesus does not oblige.

However, Jesus does, in fact, answer this question. But with a verb, and not a noun. Jesus describes an act here, how to be neighbor, and what to expect of neighbors, using the example of the hated Samaritans (the remnant of the conquered northern Kingdom of Israel whose worship of God was polluted and corrupted by their conquerors). He shows us what a neighbor does, so we can go and do the same — both care for strangers and enemies and be cared for by those same strangers and enemies.

But he’s noting something important here too — the person in need, in front us, right now, is our neighbor. Love and compassion is commanded not when it is easy, or convenient, but when it is hard, when it requires great risks, when it is costly.

It is easy, in our age, to pick and choose our causes, to consider — from a position of power — who we will help. And how. We can help people far away, and a flood of refugees becomes a problem to be managed — somehow. We agonize over policies and procedures, how all these things will change our societies and our communities.

We wonder, as Parris does, “who is our neighbor?”

I have no answer. Not to that question. I know that when we say “everyone” is our neighbor, then no one is our neighbor. Because we cannot love everyone, and because we can pick and choose who we will help just as much as if we decide certain folks — Muslims, refugees, foreigners — are not our neighbor.

In the last few months, because of a ministry I have done, God has given me some young people to care for. Teenagers beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. I would never have cared for them, or even considered the possibility, had I not been traveling that road to Jericho myself, and come across them. And understood my calling — to love them into some kind of wholeness, a wholeness they’ve never experienced because that beating on the road has been almost the entirety of their lives.

People put in front of me. To care for. Neighbors.

We like to think in terms of big pictures, in terms of policies and procedures that will help as many as possible. Or even solve problems. But that’s not called for here — Jesus says nothing about making the road safer, or punishing bandits, or establishing hospitals to care for the wounded, or lobbying those in charge for any of those things. (Many of these kids are wounded specifically because of the systems that are charged with caring for them.) He speaks of one man, beaten, and one man, stopping to care. And that’s all Jesus speaks of.

So I have no answer for refugees. I have no policy prescriptions. I almost don’t care about any of that.

I do care about the people God puts in front of me. Wounded, desperate, alone, in need of love. They are no more and no less deserving of that care than anyone else. But God gave them to me, and that makes them mine. My neighbors.

Love the people God gives you to love, the people put right in front of you. Care for the people God gives you to care about. Heal the people God gives you to heal. If there aren’t any such people in your life, then get out, wander the roads, take some risks — you might be beaten, and need the care of a neighbor yourself. That’s part of this parable too, I think. And do not worry about the rest, about the shape or form of society, the good order of the world, or whether someone else is winning or getting something over on you. That’s not the Gospel. As far as the world is concerned, trust God.

Fear not, trust God, and love your neighbor.

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