Who is My Neighbor?

Sermon for October 23, 2011
Based on Mathew 22:34-46

Jesus tells us in Mathew’s gospel that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. If you have ever lived beside a neighbor that was hard to get along with, who you just didn’t like for good reason, you might be saying to yourself, “That’s easier said than done.” For many people in this country “Love your neighbor as yourself.” means not hurting others and doing good for someone when we can. Today, however, many of us also understand that commandment to extend to people not only in our neighborhood but in other parts of the world as well. Today we are more aware of a global community than we have ever been in history. But to the authors of the bible the word neighbor was something different than we think of in our modern world.

The command to love our neighbor is first found in Leviticus 19:18, our Old Testament reading for today. “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The command to love our neighbor is found eight more times in the New Testament. It was only the Israelites who had a clear obligation to act favorably towards their neighbors. They were to care for their neighbor in the same way you would care for yourself with mutual trust and respect. The Israelites believed it was important to think positively toward their neighbor. During the times of the Old Testament a neighbor was a fellow Israelite or any stranger who wished to live peacefully among them.

During the time of the New Testament, however, the bible tells us something different. It tells us to “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” A neighbor to people in the time of the New Testament had come to only mean someone you liked. But when we say our neighbor is only someone we like we stop looking at people we dislike as people. We start looking at them as objects that we have decided we will treat however we wish. When neighbor comes to mean only someone we like than it gives us permission to ignore them, to hate them, to use and even abuse anyone we don’t like.

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samarian he was bringing back the Old Testament belief that we have a responsibility to treat all people well whether we like them or not. A neighbor should be to us anyone who is in relationship with us in some way. That would mean that a neighbor is all of God’s children. A neighbor is any fellow human being who shares the same human needs we all have; the need for hope, the need to be loved, the need to prosper and live well, and the desire to live in peace. Our neighbor is anyone who has the same desires we do and wishes to have the same rights we all wish to have. No matter how anyone, especially Christians, want to define who is our neighbor, the authors of the bible used the word neighbor to tell us that God intends that in our human relationships with one another we are to be supportive of each other at all times. Our relationships with one another are not to serve our own self- interests, with a few acts of charity here and there thrown in for good measure.

The book of Mathew was originally written in Greek and the author had a number of words to choose from when writing the word “love”. But in Greek, as in English there was no single word that means the kind of love that describes how God loves the world or how we as Christians are to love God, our neighbor, or anyone. That is because God’s love is unique from the kind of love the world is familiar with. The kind of love associated with God and Christians is the love that has been made known to us through Jesus. That kind of love has no ulterior motive, it is a love that is un-manipulated, it is a love that is unconditional, and it is a love that is unlimited, it is a love that is not about feelings. It is a love of commitment and action. It is not a sentimental love but is the kind of love that is described in the Old Testament as “covenant love” or “steadfast love”. Covenant love is a love in which we are in a binding relationship with someone. Covenant love is the kind of love God has promised to us, God’s people. We are in a covenant love with God. Steadfast love is a love that is unchanging, steady, loyal, and constant

The Pharisees, who believed in a strict interpretation of the laws, asked Jesus “Teacher, which is the greatest commandments in the Law?” The rabbis liked to try and sum up the heart of the many laws of their day into one meaning. They liked to discuss which law might be more important than another. There was a long tradition of taking the long list of the laws that Moses had written and paring them down to a smaller number. Moses had originally come up with 613 laws. David pared them down to eleven laws. Isaiah pared them down to six laws, the prophet Micah pared them down to three laws, the prophet Amos pared them down to two laws, and the prophet Habakkuk pared the meaning of Moses’ 613 laws down to one law. The Golden Rule would be a good example of a rule or law that covers the same amount of issues that a long list of laws might cover. It says it all in a nutshell. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” teaches us a lot in one sentence. Jesus replied to the Pharisee’s question of which law is the greatest law by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Although Jesus was only asked to give one commandment that was the greatest of them all, he gave them two. That is because the two commandments are equally important. They are too important to be separated. In order to fully love God as we should we must also love our neighbor in the same way. Loving our neighbor and loving ourselves is not second to loving God. They are one in the same. If you love God you will love your neighbor as well yourself.

As I said there was a need in Jesus’ day to reduce the original 613 laws of Moses down to something simple. Although we might think of the people in Jesus time to be of an ancient time, every generation of people throughout history has thought of themselves as being modern in the way they think. Each new generation throughout history has always had a desire to think with a modern mind and is determined to not be ruled by the exact words and rules of their ancestors. When Jesus said, love the Lord with all your heart and soul, he also said love the Lord with your mind. Use the mind God gave you to learn to better understand how to love God. We in our modern lives today in this time in history also want things pared down to something simpler in the same way as the Israeli people. We live in a world where we try to replace as many words as we can with letters and abbreviations. Martin Luther King Day is now MLK Day. We as God’s people, just like the people in Jesus’ day, want an accurate, brief, modern and alive summary of how we are to live as children of God. We want the truth about how to love God in a nutshell. So here it is.

Because our deepest bond is with our creator, God, it is only through God that we can learn the purpose of our lives. Only when we have created a strong and true relationship with God can we ever hope for a strong, true and stable relationship with one another and with ourselves. The bible tells us that “If a man despises God’s other children, how can he love the Father?” (1 John 4:20). It is impossible for us to love our neighbor, who are all people, until we have learned to completely love God and ourselves. Our neighbors are just like us with the same flaws and brokenness and it is only through God, through God’s divine perfection, through our relationship with God our Creator that we can ever learn to love all people as ourselves. That we can ever see all people as equal to us.

So how do we learn to love God and in turn love all people as our neighbors? We must reach out to one another in friendship. We must spend time together as a community of people. We must show interest in the lives of others. We cannot just wave at someone on occasion and never stop to talk to them. We must share ourselves with one another. We must listen to one another’s stories. We must ask one another what interests them, what do they hope for, what are their concerns. We must forget about ourselves at times and just listen to someone else. We must share with others our hearts. We must serve one another with good will. We must both give and receive the gifts we have to offer one another. We must continuously strive to understand one another with God’s help.

The subject of our adult Sunday school class for the past few weeks has been about the importance of sharing our life stories with one another. When we share our stories with one another we become closer and we let down the protective wall we all have around us. We come to better understand one another. During our first class we each shared a personal story of our own, something from our childhood. We talked about a place that was special to us as a child. Those stories we shared with one another in that short time together were powerful in their ability to make each of us look at one another in a different way. The personal stories of a special time and place in our lives helped us to see how much we have in common. God wants us to understand that although we may seem very different on the outside all God’s children share the same hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, joys and sorrows, and many of the same life experiences.

We have been created as God’s children to love and to worship God and to share our lives with others. God did not create us to keep to ourselves. If we chose to keep to ourselves then we have only half a life. Our lives become stagnant and although we may still have breath, part of us is dead inside. There is something that I have observed among a number of people who have reached the end of their lives. Over the years many of them have isolated themselves from other people. And when they have reached their final days they discover that there is no one to talk to, no one to hold their hand, no one to listen to their stories. They wish now that the people they thought they didn’t need when they were younger were with them. But it is also true of younger people who isolate themselves from their neighbors because in their busy and important lives they have no time for anyone but themselves. They too will reach a time in their lives when they too will find themselves alone.

God created us to live and to love one another with our entire being. God created us to use both our heart and our mind. When we do not use both our heart and our mind as God intended we live a divided life. Some people worship God only with their emotions but never with their minds. They never wonder or question anything about the mystery of God. Some people worship God only on Sunday but forget about God once they leave the church. Some love God only in their homes but forget about God when they go to work. They all live divided lives. They all live lives that are half of what God intended them to live. We are all called to use what God has given us in order to live the full lives God expects of us; our heart, our mind, our ability to have relationships with one another. When we chose to love ourselves as God intended we chose the high road in life. Loving ourselves means that we at least try to be everything God intended us to be. We love God with all our heart, we wonder at and question the mystery of God, we are curious and care about one another, and we live lives that are always open to new understanding and new wisdom.

Jesus saw no barriers, no walls, and no fences between people. Jesus saw no one as unworthy. No race, no nationality, no particular class or culture, or difference of any kind should make someone anything other than our neighbor. A neighbor is anyone who can be a neighbor to. Look at the world we live in as Jesus did.

Remember that all people were created by God no matter where they live or how they live their lives. All of us have life stories that may have taken place in a different part of the world or in a different time but all have a common thread that runs through them. That common thread is our creator, our God who love all of his children and wants all of us to live in relationship with one another and with God.