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.

Continue reading “Who is My Neighbor? And Who is a Neighbor to Me? The Discomfort of Grace.”

Social Justice and Gospel Justice, Part I

Jesus and the early church focused on preaching the Gospel and doing justice

alone sad child on a street

I am involved in a faith-based, legal aid organization that provides legal services and holistic help to people who live on the margins of our society. We call it “Gospel justice”, which is the title of a book written by Bruce Strom, the founder of the organization, Administer Justice. (See Gospel Justice)

I am aware of the skepticism with which Christians, and conservatives, generally, view “social justice”. While many Christians of the more liberal stripe (and liberals generally) embrace social justice, more conservative and orthodox Christians have learned to disassociate from social justice.

Labels, however, aren’t ultimately we are very helpful when it comes to nuanced understanding. We also have to be careful here that we don’t mix politics and the faith to the determent of the Gospel. This is true on both sides of the political aisle. Our politics shouldn’t define our faith.

We follow Jesus on what turns out to be a rather narrow road that doesn’t often follow the paths the world has beaten. Thus, I have been thinking for months about writing on the topic of social justice. I guess it’s time I do.

Continue reading “Social Justice and Gospel Justice, Part I”

Where Are You Going?

Where we are going is more about the journey than the destinations, and the journey is about who we are becoming.

I read recently in the book, Gospel Justice, about the parable of the good Samaritan. The book focused on the priest who failed to cross the road to help an injured man. Bruce Strom offers a few possibilities about where the priest was going and why he was in too big of a hurry to help the injured man.

As I reflect back on what Bruce wrote, I can imagine God asking the question to the priest that hangs in the air: where are you going?

Where are you going?

God might ask that question not because He doesn’t know. God knows our every move and the words we are about to speak even before we say them. God might ask that question because He wants us to stop and think about it.

Where are you going?

Most people would have an answer of course. My 20-year-old might say that she is going to take a semester off of college to work, not knowing what college will look like in the fall with the virus outbreak still ongoing. My 25-year-old might say he is taking a year off before starting grad school. My 27-year-old might say that he is working, saving enough money for a security deposit, and the first and last months of rent for an apartment that he will need if he gets the job as a grad assistant that he has applied for.

My 30-year-old might say he is going into his second year of seminary. My 33-year-old might say he is going to keep mulching and working from home until the stay-at-home order is lifted and he can go back to work. My 34-year-old might say that he is going to patent a UV light that kills the coronavirus.

We might have longer term answers, too. I joke that I am going to work until I am 80 to pay off the college debt I incurred for my kids. I think about the possibility of retirement, as remote as it seems.

The priest in the parable might have been going home or going to church or going to visit a friend. He might have even being going to help someone in need. The priest might have had a good destination in mind, but the parable is clearly meant to contrast the priest to the “Good Samaritan”.

Of course, “good” and “Samaritan” were two words that Jews in first century Judea would not have put together. Samaritans were heretics and second-class citizens in the Jewish world at that time.

And of course, Jesus chose a Samaritan to drive home the point that the Good Samaritan, not the priest, did the “right” thing in that parable. He did the better thing. He stopped to help the injured man on the side of the road.

It didn’t matter where the priest was going, ultimately; he passed up the divine opportunity to help the man right in front of him.

If God was asking the priest, “Where are you going?” I don’t think he would be looking for the immediate answer. If the priest said he was going to the temple to perform his priestly duties, I think God might have asked him again, “Where are you going?”

We all have places to go, things to do, people to see. We all have goals and aspirations. I imagine God asking this question, not about the destinations, goals and aspirations we have planned, but about the journey: what direction are you moving in?

When two of my sons were wrestling, I would sometimes say to them (and myself): “It’s not about the winning and losing; it’s about the journey.”

The ultimate question about the journey of life is this: Who are you becoming?

Continue reading “Where Are You Going?”

Love: Who is Your Enemy?

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Asking who is your enemy may seem like a strange way to begin a blog article about loving your neighbor, but bear with me. My question is inspired by a different, but related, question. My question is inspired by the question asked by an expert in the law many years ago: “Who is my neighbor?”

This question followed a theological dialogue between the expert in the law and Jesus in which the expert in the law sought to test Jesus. (See Luke 10:25-29) As Jesus often did, though, the test put to Jesus turned into a challenge to the so-called expert.

The expert in the law asked Jesus the loaded question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered with his own question, “What is written in the law?… How do you read it?” Not to be shown up, the expert in the law answered:

“‘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.’” (quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18)

The expert in the law was probably looking for some debate, but Jesus wasn’t interested in debate. Instead, he simply concluded, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”

The expert in the law had the tables turned on him. He wanted to test Jesus, but Jesus put the test to him, and now he was in defensive mode. He might said, “Wait a minute!” And then the question followed that leads me to my question, “Who is my neighbor?” If we have to love our neighbors, and if loving our neighbors is the measure for inheriting eternal life, we better know who are neighbors are!

But there is a back story here that leads from the one question to the other question. Apparently, the First Century Palestine Jews had interpreted Leviticus 19:18 to mean, “Love your neighbor; hate your enemy.”

How do we know that? It isn’t found anywhere in Scripture, but Jesus quoted the statement in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy….’” Ah, and now you know where I am going, because Jesus followed with this:

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

Lest there be any doubt who my neighbor, Jesus stretched it so far that love must reach all the way from my friends to my enemies and everyone in between!

And that leads me to the question, “Whos is my enemy that I must love?”

Continue reading “Love: Who is Your Enemy?”

Love Your Enemies Everyday

Cliques“Love your enemy” is a one of Jesus’ commands that may not seem like it has much application to us in our everyday lives. How many Taliban have you encountered today? For most of us in the United States, we don’t have real enemies like that.

At first blush, the tendency for most of us may be to gloss over the command to “love your enemy” because we don’t have “enemies”; however, I don’t think that Jesus gave us that option.

Jesus said in the same context, “If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” Even the unbelievers do that.

The truth is that we gravitate toward people and people groups that are like us.

We see it in all facets of life. The tendency to associate with our “own kind” begins early in life. On the playground, kids form cliques. The classic “no girls allowed” sign under the tree-house is just one example. Athletes stick together; nerds stick together; fraternities and sororities stick together; Italians, Irish, Mexicans – people make up the current immigrant wave – stick together. The poor associate with the poor, and the rich associate with the rich.

Racial divides are just an extreme example. We all have our “own people”, the people with whom we identity. We gravitate toward people “like us.” 

We don’t necessarily call others our enemies, but we sometimes act as if they are. The more the mentality is “us against them” the more like enemies others become. It could be Republicans and Democrats, unions and company management, people who love science and people who love religion, Muslims and Christians, Americans and Russians, haves and have-nots and the in-crowd and the “others”.

All of these classifications result from commonalities and differences, and they become reason that people separate themselves from other people. They become reasons that people do not associate with other people. They become lines in the sand, sometimes, that define friend and foe.

The application to everyday life is found in the contrast between enemies and our “own people”.

In that sense, Jesus suggested an expanded meaning of “enemies” just as he expanded the idea of fulfilling the law: it is not enough to fulfill most of the commands of the law; your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. It is not enough to refrain from murdering people; a person who is angry with or curses a brother might as well be guilty of murder. It is not enough to refrain from committing adultery; anyone who looks with lust on a woman has committed adultery in his heart.   

Enemies, then, are not just the Taliban, terrorists, rapists. Enemies are the people with whom we do not associate because they are different. Enemies are people with whom we have had differences. Enemies include anyone with whom we maintain our distance. Enemies are persons we treat as something other than neighbors.

At different times, an enemy could be a spouse, a child, a parent, a next door neighbor, a co-worker, a fellow believer. An enemy could be anyone we intentionally ignore or fail to acknowledge.

Enemies include anyone with whom we have differences, and we are called to love them. Love breaks down the differences. Love makes enemies friends. And if enemies do not respond to love, we are to love them nevertheless.


“Love your enemies” comes from the Sermon on the Mount. I generally picture Jesus standing on a mountain addressing a multitude in this passage. Indeed, there is reference to “the crowds” in Matthew 5:1, but it says Jesus “went up on a mountainside and sat down” and “His disciples came to him.” In other words, Jesus was not speaking to the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount; he was speaking to the disciples.

The entire  presentation on loving your enemies was introduced by these statements: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.”  Jesus was speaking to his followers, then, who are to be salt and light in the world by loving their enemies and breaking down those barriers between people.

That does not mean that we need to identify with and be like our enemies. We are to be in the World, but not of the World. Jesus showed us how to do it. He associated with tax collectors, harlots and sinners. He greeted them. He ignored the barriers. He interacted with them. He ate with them. He loved them. They were drawn to Jesus in turn.

The Good Samaritan went out of way to help the injured Jew on the road. It is not coincidence that Jesus chose a Samaritan to help the Jew in that parable. Jews saw Samaritans as inferior and did not associate with Samaritans. Jesus showed us that we should ignore those barriers, even if it means going out of our way to do it. When we do that, we make enemies our neighbors, and we become salt and light to the World.

Post Postscript

This post was not originally inspired not by the Sermon on the Mount. I have been “chewing” for days on a pretty remarkable story of a black musician who broke the race barrier by going out of his way to befriend a Ku Klux Klansmen and, in the process, inspired many to abandon their racist ways. (You can read the story here.) I don’t know if this man is a Christian, but he is certainly like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable who went out of his way to help the injured Jew on the side of the road.

Racism (hatred) is injury to the human soul. It disables the one who hates. The racist sees himself as superior, and creates a barrier, draws a line in the sand, and makes others enemies.

What this black musician did is what I could see Jesus doing. He did not let the hatred of the racist incite hatred in his own heart. He confronted the hatred and the racist with love demonstrated by reaching out, breaking down the barrier and befriending an enemy. The salt and light of this action changed the Klansmen, and it is the kind of salt and light that changes the world. That is love.