When My Neighbor Can’t Breathe
Jesus taught that the two great commandments, the summation and foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40), the pathway to inheriting eternal life (Luke 10:25), are these:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and “your neighbor as yourself.”
These are not complicated commandments—but we make them complicated, sometimes. We certainly made them complicated 2,000 years ago when a lawyer, “wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” (Luke 10:29).
Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In the eyes of many first-century Jews, one of the worst things a person could be was a Samaritan. The Samaritans were non-Israelites, brought in by the conquering Assyrians to supplant the nation of Israel. They took Israel’s faith and bastardized it, mixing in pagan traditions and false worship. And so when the expert asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells him a story that flips the question on its head:
Who isn’t your neighbor?
Who doesn’t deserve your love, your attention, and your concern?
It wasn’t a coincidence that Jesus chose to make a Samaritan the hero of the story. It was a chance for everyone listening to re-evaluate how they looked at the world—and, more importantly, the people in it. Jesus was telling them, “These people, the ones you look at as the lowest of the low, they are just as much your neighbors as the people living next door to you. The boundaries of this commandment don’t end at the boundaries of your community, and they certainly don’t end at the feet of someone different than you. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
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It’s a theme Paul keeps coming back to. He tells the Romans, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.'” (Romans 13:9). He tells the Galatians, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).
Love your neighbor is a tall order on its own.
Love your neighbor as yourself is in another league altogether.
Human nature makes it hard. And yet it’s such a key part of what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ—”who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
What does Paul say just before giving that description of Jesus? “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).
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There is no command to approve of everything your neighbor does. There is no command to accept his ideology as true and valid no matter what it happens to be. There is no command to support or embrace his sins.
There is a command to love him as yourself.
Paul mentioned Peter’s hypocrisy in avoiding the Gentile brethren while the Jewish brethren were around (Galatians 2:11-13). James had to chew out the Church for showing favoritism to the rich brethren over the poor brethren: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8-10).
Last week, I posted a blog called “How to Save the World.” The whole point of that particular blog was that we can’t save the world—that the world is fundamentally broken in a way that no one but God can truly fix. It was meant to be a reminder that the solutions we really need to our problems will not and cannot come from within ourselves. We might sometimes stumble into a brief moment of temporary improvement, but it’s never enough. It never lasts. “The way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23).
I still think that’s important to keep in mind. There are layers to everything that’s unfolding—and like everything in our world, those layers stem from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. No matter how we try to tease those elements apart, those layers will always be a mixture of right and wrong—and as Christians, we should be hesitant to throw our support behind whatever movements we perceive as “least wrong.”
But that’s not the point of this blog. The point of this blog is a reminder that the Biblical injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves sits at the very core of our identity as Christians—and that thousands upon thousands of our neighbors have been marching through cities this past week, holding up signs that say, “I Can’t Breathe.”
If you are like me—a white person whose only real experience with racism comes second hand, from the stories of others—then the easiest thing to do is move to the other side of the road and keep on walking.
That’s not what God says to do.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Don’t brush it off. Don’t look the other way. Don’t rationalize, justify, or excuse it. Cross the road and see what you can do to help.
I don’t think that means joining in a protest or getting involved in a political movement—but I do think it means trying our best to understand what our neighbors are dealing with. It means putting aside our preconceived ideas of how life works for people who aren’t us. It means listening. It means figuring out what we change in our own lives to make ourselves a better neighbor—from the things we say, to the things we do, to the things we think in the privacy of our own minds.
“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10). Especially. Not exclusively. All means all, and neighbor means so much more than the people on our streets.
Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul. Love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Until next time,
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