Tools for loving our neighbor

Published 10:56 am Saturday, July 30, 2016

by Andrew Book

One of the best known and most valued teachings of Jesus is his command that we “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” If we are only going to remember a few things that Jesus said, this one should be near the top of the list because Jesus declared that this commandment, combined with the instruction to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind” is the basis of all of the law and the prophets (See Matthew 22).

Jesus’ instruction to love our neighbors was not especially radical in his time. In fact, he was simply repeating an Old Testament law that gave the same instruction. Where his teaching became radical was when he told a story about who is our neighbor. The story is often known as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” (You can find it in Luke 10:30-37).

The story Jesus tells paints that picture of an injured man lying on the side of the road who is seen first by respected members of the Jewish society — first a priest and then a Levite (someone who worked in the temple). Both of these people crossed over to the other side of the road to avoid the injured man. Then, a Samaritan came upon the man and it was the despised Samaritan “neighbor” who gave up his time, energy, money and resources to care for the injured man.

Jewish people in Jesus’ day had strong feelings about Samaritans and they were strongly negative! They hated Samaritans, they went out of their way to avoid them, they considered their religion to be twisted and false, and they considered Samaritans to be unclean. So, when Jesus suggests that Samaritans were actually the “neighbors” he wanted his disciples to love, he was teaching something very radical indeed.

I wonder who would be the equivalent of the Samaritans today? Who are the people who, at the very sight of them, we recoil with fear and distrust? Maybe a Muslim man in traditional Arabic garb? What about a Sikh wearing a wrapped turban on his head? Possibly a woman wearing a black hijab (head covering)? Maybe it is simply someone who has a different color skin. The people who we distrust at first glance are the very people that Jesus is telling us to love as our neighbor — and that is a very hard thing to do.

Loving our (distrusted) neighbor is hard for many reasons, but a major challenge is we, like the Jewish people in Jesus’ time, try to avoid those we don’t like or trust. We don’t try to understand them or get to know them. We simply prefer to dislike them from a distance. It is easy to disparage their lives and faith because all we know is a caricature of their worst qualities. I don’t think anyone would like me if all they knew were my faults, yet we are often content with an inaccurate and incomplete picture of those people we don’t trust.

If we are going to love our neighbor, we have to get to know them. We have to work to truly understand them (and not just their worst parts). We have to be willing to hear about a life that sounds strange because it is different and say, “How can I love this person?”

Today’s world has something that people in Jesus’ time never knew: we have an interconnected world where our neighbors live both around the block and around the world. If we are going to be able to thrive in a global neighborhood, we need to take the time to understand our neighbors so that we can work, live and play together. We have to understand each other or we will never be able to live together!

This fall, I have the opportunity to teach a World Religions course at Southampton Academy. I am excited about this class because it will give us the chance to grow in understanding our neighbors. It will give us the tools so we can figure out how to love them as well as how to work together. The youth who are high school students now will be living and working in a world that is even more interconnected than the world is today and those seemingly “strange” neighbors will be people they interact with more and more. My hope is that these students will be able to understand them better because of the time we have spent together.

As a Christian whose faith in Jesus Christ shapes every part of me, there are many parts of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and the other faiths of this world that I will never agree with. However, understanding our neighbor is not about agreeing with them at every turn. Instead it is about getting to know them, seeing what is important to them, and realizing that we can either chose to know one another and work together or turn our backs on each other — and be poorer for the loss.

Most of you will not be joining me for World Religions this year, but you can all take steps to begin to get to know the strangers who are your neighbors. Your first step may be as simple as walking across the street to talk with a neighbor who looks different than you or turning on your computer to search, “Do all Muslims want to destroy America?”

Take time to understand your neighbors so you can love them — you might even be surprised to find a friend in someone who is different than you!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or