Who is My Neighbor? And Who is a Neighbor to Me? The Discomfort of Grace.

Grace is exercised among people who are not like you, who challenge you, who are uncomfortable to be around.

I have often touted the Unbelievable Podcast on Christian Premiere Radio in the UK, and I do it again here. I recommended the episode on Philip Yancey live Q&A on faith, doubt and the future of the US church: Saturday 19 March 2022. Much was discussed in the episode that I could write about, but one thing stands out above the rest to me this morning. Philip Yancey said,

“It’s easy to find a church, to gravitate toward a church, where people look like you, and smell like you, and vote like you.”

Most of us go to churches like that. It’s a human tendency to gravitate toward people with whom we have the most connections, to settle in with people with whom we have the most in common, to spend time with people most like us, but Yancey says,

“That’s not the way to exercise grace. Grace is exercised among people who are not like you, who challenge you, who are uncomfortable to be around, people who are immoral. That’s where to exercise grace.”

Such a radical statement challenges most of us, I think. I am guilty of settling into churches where I feel most comfortable, but what if God wants me to engage in a church, or in groups, or with people with whom I feel uncomfortable? Would I be open to that possibility?

Jesus often urged people to love their neighbors. When I think of my neighbors, I think of the people in my neighborhood who I know and spend time with. If you are like me, you probably think immediately of your neighbors you know, but what about your neighbors you don’t know?

Jesus knew that people tend to favor those who are like them when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 25:30-35) In the parable, an unidentified man is attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes, beaten and left for dead. (Luke 25:30) Three people come along and see him lying there: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

The priest and the Levite were the people most like the man who asked the question that prompted the parable. He was an expert in the Law of Moses, a Jewish leader.

He actually began with a more esoteric question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turned the question on him, asking “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 25:25-26)

When the man responded, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'”, Jesus answered anti-climatically, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”

That might have been the end of the conversation, but the expert in the law “wanted to justify himself”. Perhaps, he wanted affirmation that he was reading the law correctly. Perhaps, Jesus to acknowledge his deep moral thinking. Perhaps, he wanted to prove his expertise in the Law. Whatever he was thinking, he asked, “[W]ho is my neighbor?” (Luke 25:29)

I feel like the man wanted Jesus to engage him in a deep a theological discussion, but Jesus deflected the attempt with the parable. The expert in the Law wanted to make it difficult and complicated, but Jesus kept it simple.

Maybe the expert in the Law was more interested in affirmation that he was a good person who deserved to inherit eternal life. Maybe his question was motivated by his own recognition that some people are harder to love than others. Perhaps, he knew that his own stake in eternal life depended on the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Maybe he didn’t really want an answer; he just wanted to debate.

He is specifically identified as an “expert in the Law”, and the initial question, and the follow up question, read to me like he was wanting a deeper, philosophical conversation with Jesus. He didn’t really want a simple, straightforward answer. He wanted to debate, but Jesus wouldn’t go there with him.

I am also relatively certain that the answer Jesus gave him was not at all what he expected. It certainly what he was looking for. It likely cut him to the quick. Both he and and the wider audience who was listening in.

“In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” (Luke 25:30-35)

The priest and the Levite were the people most like the expert in the law. They were spiritual and social leaders that more people looked up to. They were “the good guys”.

Samaritans were traitors. They were the people who remained in the land during the Babylonian captivity. They assimilated. They worshipped on the wrong mountain. (John 4:19-20) Jews did not even associate with Samaritans. (John 4:9)

The priests, the Levites, and the experts in the law, were (perhaps) like the people in most of our church congregations. They are the people most like us. We speak the same language. We have common experiences, common values, and common respectability.

The priests and the Levites were the “good guys” in the minds of the expert in the Law and the crowd listening in, but Jesus flipped the script. The priest and the Levite crossed to the other side of the road when they saw the man lying left for dead. Samaritan is the one who stopped to tend to the man’s injuries, transport him to a safe place and cover the expenses for his care.

When Jesus asked the expert who “was a neighbor to the man”, the answer was clear and unavoidable: “The one who had mercy on him.” (Luke 25:36-37)

Notice the original question, though: the expert asked “Who is MY neighbor?” At the end of the parable, Jesus turned it around, asking, “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man left on the side of the road?”(My paraphrase)

The expert in the law naturally put himself in the position of the one helping a neighbor. He asked” “Who is MY neighbor that I should be helping?” She didn’t answer THAT question; instead, he told a story about a Samaritan being a good neighbor.

We tend to see ourselves as the good guys, as the ones who help others. Not only do we sometimes fail to see others as neighbors who God desires to help; we sometimes fail to see others who are not like us as neighbors doing what God desires us to do.

Philip Yancey notes that the Pharisees and other religious leaders were most similar to Jesus, and Jesus had the most in common with them. The people who were least like him were the prostitutes, and the sinners, and the publicans (tax collectors), but these are the people Jesus hung around with – so much that the religious leaders questioned Jesus about the amount of time he spent with them. (Luke 5:29-30)

The prostitutes, and the sinners, and the publicans were the people who needed Jesus most. They were also the people who knew they needed Jesus most.

I will end with another parable and some thoughts,

Jesus described a father with two sons. When the father asked them to go work in the vineyard, one said, “No”, and the other said, “Yes.” The one who said, “No!”, however, changed his mind. He went and worked in the vineyard, while the one who said, “Yes!”, failed to to do what he said he would do. (Matt. 21:28-30)

When Jesus asked, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”, the answer was clear: the one who said, “No!”, but did it anyway. In conclusion, Jesus said,

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you! For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

Matt. 21:31-32

The point of all this is that Jesus has made it clear in what he said and in the way that he lived that we should not be like the priests, the Levites and the experts in the Law who are too busy to get involved in other peoples’ lives. We should not shun people who are not like us.

We should be their neighbors! Not only that: we should see them as our neighbors.

We should not be overly focused on debating the nuances of the Law (theology) to the detriment of being neighbors to people and seeing people as our neighbors. Back to the point Yancey made in the podcast: Jesus wants us to engage with people who are not like us because that is where grace and love and the fruits of the Holy Spirit are lived out.

“[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

Galatians 5:22-24)

The fruits of the Holy Spirit are not meant to be exercised in a vacuum. They are meant to be lived out in relationship – in neighborliness, in community, and especially in communities that are “not like us”. For this reason, Jesus told his followers to go to the ends of the earth.

Love fulfills the law. (Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14) Love doesn’t seek its own. (1 Corinthians 15:5) Love doesn’t stick to what is comfortable and familiar.

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