Love Your Actual Neighbors
by Don Everts
The latest research tells us there is a profound hunger for neighborly love right now.
A quarter of all adults in the United States live alone, and it is not uncommon for households to have no one who regularly comes into their home. Psychiatrists tell us that the condition called “chronic loneliness” is quite dangerous and has become very common in modern American life.
Sociologists remind us that the neighborhood used to be a place where people could predictably find friendship in the midst of loneliness and help in time of need. But since the end of World War II that’s been changing. The evidence suggests the local neighborhood is no longer a place where we are known or meaningfully connected. And because we are more isolated from our neighbors, we’re forced to purchase from professionals the care we once received from neighbors, or to go without care at all.
In this context, it is vital that we reengage with Jesus’ clear call to love our neighbors.
It’s no secret that Jesus called His followers to love their neighbors. Multiple times we’re told that Jesus quoted that important phrase from Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). And at one point, Jesus lifted this particular commandment above others when a lawyer asked Him which commandment in the Law was the “greatest”:
“And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets’” (Matthew 22:37-40).
While we rightly focus on the call here to love God with everything we are and have, it’s important that we don’t overlook the fact that, according to Jesus, there is something special, or core, about this call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The importance of this command was clearly taught in the early church, as we see in the teachings of Paul and James:
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8).
Clearly, as Christians it’s important that we love our neighbors. But what exactly does this look like?
You may recall that one day an expert in the Law asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. And, in response, Jesus asked the man how he would, as an expert, summarize God’s Law. The expert’s summary was a good one:
“And he answered, ‘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’” (Luke 10:27).
Jesus affirmed the expert’s answer and invited him to live out this greatest of the Commandments. But the expert quickly asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
It’s a question of definition (Who is my neighbor, and who isn’t?), but Jesus gives an answer of invitation. Jesus calls the expert to neighborly love by telling the story of the “Good Samaritan.” In this well-known parable, Jesus paints a picture of a man who sacrificially loved a man in need.
“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 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. 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’” (Luke 10:33-35).
Through the memorable climax of this story, Jesus painted a picture of what it looks like to love: drawing near, empathizing, and caring for needs with the gifts he had at hand. Notice that the Samaritan man in the story used the various gifts God had blessed him with that day: his time, his supplies, his animal, his money, and even his good name—as a promise for future payments.
That’s the picture Jesus paints of someone “loving” their neighbor. As Peter put it, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). That’s neighborly love: using what God has put into your hands to serve and help others.
And that’s exactly what Jesus is calling this expert in the Law to do: “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:37b). Jesus makes it clear that the point of God’s call in Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself isn’t about definitions (Who is my neighbor, and who isn’t?), but about action: being a neighbor by using your gifts to love the people right around you.
This is something we can do even in the midst of quarantines and social distancing. It may require a bit of creativity on our part, but the good news about neighborly love based on the gifts God has already given each of us is that we are each positioned perfectly to love how He’s equipped us to love.
While this call to neighborly love extends to those we are with at work and at play and at church, it also applies (to state the obvious) to our actual neighbors: the people who live near us.
In an age when many people are “living above place” without any meaningful interaction with their neighbors, when chronic loneliness is rampant…what a perfect and important time for us to return to the second half of the greatest commandment and love our actual neighbors as we love ourselves.
Don Everts is a writer for Lutheran Hour Ministries and has served as a pastor and a campus minister. He and his wife, Wendy, live in a neighborhood founded over two hundred years ago that now has two public schools, four churches, one mosque, one Hindu temple, and both a Costco and a Walmart. Don’s many books include The Reluctant Witness and The Spiritually Vibrant Home, and The Hopeful Neighborhood.
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