Are you my neighbor?

When I was a child I used to watch a television program called “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” At the beginning of every episode Mr. Rogers would sing a song that asked the question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”  What does that mean?  What does it mean to be a neighbor?

That question came up when an expert in the Law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” It was a very important question for this expert because it came right after an even more important question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Like many of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day, this man thought that he could earn his salvation. The question was: Had he done enough?  Had he loved his neighbor all the time? That is why the expert’s question concerning the definition of “neighbor” was so important.

The Jewish leaders didn’t all agree on the definition of neighbor. Did neighbor mean everybody or could there be certain limitations placed on the definition? For instance, many Jews taught that a neighbor didn’t include other nations and especially Samaritans. If this expert could narrow the definition, then in his mind he could be perfect and earn his place in heaven.  But if his definition was wrong, then he would be forced to admit that he was a sinner doomed to destruction.

Jesus told this man the parable of the “Good Samaritan” to show all of us what it means to be a neighbor.  Instead of asking who my neighbor is, I need to ask myself how I can be a good neighbor to others.  But this is so much easier said than done.  Sometimes we wish that we could leave certain people out, don’t we? How often do we try to redefine what a neighbor is, like the Jews in Jesus’ day did, by excluding people we don’t like?

This parable reminds us that we don’t get to pick and choose who our neighbor is because everyone is included. This is exactly how our God treated us. Jesus had compassion on us when we were his enemies. He loved us when we didn’t love him. He cared for us when we didn’t care for him. He did all this not because we had treated him well, but because we needed his help.

And so we are not just to return kindness to those people who are kind to us.  That would be easy. As followers of God we are to treat as our neighbors even those who mistreat us because our gracious God loved us when we didn’t show him the same kind of love in return.


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