“Who is my neighbor?” a lawyer asked Jesus (Luke 10:29).
The lawyer had made the mistake of trying to catch the law’s author contradicting the law by asking how he should inherit eternal life. The author turned the tables by asking the lawyer what he thought the law said.
The lawyer then summarized the law in these two commands: We must love God with all we are (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). The author agreed and said, “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28).
But the author’s agreement pricked the lawyer’s conscience. So the lawyer sought to “justify himself” by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). The author answered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37).
The Neighbor We Wouldn’t Choose
One observation from this application-rich parable is this: The neighbor we’re called to love is often not one we choose but one God chooses for us. In fact, this neighbor is often not one we would have chosen had not God done the choosing.
The Jew and the Samaritan wouldn’t have chosen the other as his neighbor. What made them neighbors was one man’s unchosen calamity and another man’s chosen compassion, but only in response to an unchosen, inconvenient, time-consuming, work-delaying, expensive need of another.
The shock of the parable is that God expects us to love needy strangers, even foreigners, as neighbors. But if this is true, how much more does he want us to love our actual, immediate neighbors, the ones we have to put up with regularly? Sometimes it is these neighbors we find most difficult to love. As G.K. Chesterton said,
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. . . . [T]he old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when [it] spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. . . . But we have to love our neighbor because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. (Heretics, chapter 14)
The idea of loving our neighbor is beautiful to think about so long as it remains an idealized, abstract concept. But the concrete reality of loving our neighbor, that all-too-real, exasperating person that we would not have chosen and might prefer to escape, strips the beauty away — or so we’re tempted to think. In truth, the beauty of idealized love is imaginary and the beauty of real love is revealed in the self-dying, unchosen call to love the sinner who “is actually given us.”
The Family We Didn’t Choose
Our very first neighbors are in our family. We don’t choose them; they are given to us. We are thrown together with them, warts and all, and called to love them, often with the kind of neighbor-love Jesus had in mind. Chesterton again:
It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant . . . [and] precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. . . . Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world. (Ibid)
Many wouldn’t have chosen their families if the choice had been theirs. That’s why families are laboratories of neighbor-love, because families are a microcosm of the world.
The Community We’d Like to Un-Choose
If we are old enough and live in a region where we have options, we do choose our church community. But we don’t get to choose who else joins that community.
Invariably, after some time, our church community takes on similarities to our family. We must live with leaders who disappoint us and fellow members who see the world differently. Besides their irritating temperamental idiosyncrasies, they have different interests, ministry priorities, educational philosophies, and musical preferences than we do.
“Doing life” with them doesn’t end up looking or feeling like the community of our dreams — our idealized abstract concept. Perhaps we need a change, to find a different church where we can really thrive.
Perhaps. If the defects of the church community include things like ethical or doctrinal unfaithfulness, a change may be exactly what is needed for us to thrive.
But if our restlessness is due to the disillusionment of having to dealing with difficult, different people and defective programs, then perhaps the change we need is not in church community but in our willingness to love our neighbors, the ones God has given us to love.
This has always been God’s call on Christians. The early church was not all Acts 2:42–47. It was also Acts 6:1 and 1 Corinthians 11:17–22. Those first-generation churches were comprised of Jews and Gentiles, masters and slaves, rich and poor, people who preferred different leaders, people who strongly disagreed over nonessentials — people very much like the people in our church. It was hard doing life together then, like it is now (most likely it was harder then). That’s why we have 1 Corinthians 13 and Romans 12.
The distinguishing mark of the church has never been its utopic society but its members’ love for each other (John 13:35). And according to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the glory of this love shines when it is costly and inconvenient.
“Go and Do Likewise”
If we ask with the lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?” we may not like Jesus’s answer. It may explode our dreams of love and community. Because instead of loving the neighbor we wanted, the soul-mate we would have chosen, Jesus may point us to the needy, different mess of a person in front of us — the one we feel like passing by — and say, “There is your neighbor.”
Perhaps he or she will be a stranger. But most likely he or she lives in our house, or on our street, or is a member of our church.
The parabolic Samaritan loved the wounded Jew as himself. And Jesus says to us what he said to the lawyer: “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).