Love your neighbor. That’s one of those phrases that is used so flippantly that when you hear it, it’s easy to tune out. It’s lost its meaning. And that’s a terrible shame because the suggestion to love your neighbor is a powerful one that Jesus was passionate about, and spoiler: he wasn’t vague in the slightest about what it meant.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” wasn’t something Jesus came up with. It was around long before him, written into the Jewish law. So when Jesus confirmed that loving your neighbor as yourself was of the utmost importance, he wasn’t saying anything new to his audience. It’s how he suggested we love our neighbor and who he defined as our neighbor that was radical.
Someone plainly asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus responded with a story that would answer that question and then some. He set the scene: a man is traveling between cities on a road when he is jumped by robbers and left badly injured, beaten within an inch of his life. Over the next few hours, three men see him dying on the side of the road. The first two, who happen to be members of the same race and community, pass him by. The third, a man of different background and race, one who should’ve hated the man lying on the ground according to the cultural norms at the time, decides to care for him. He bandages his wounds and then takes him to an inn, where he pays the innkeeper out of his own pocket to care for the injured man and promises to come back and check in on him, paying anything extra.
So, Jesus was asked about neighbors and told a story of travelers. Seems a bit odd at first, but he was saying that neighbors are not just the people in your community that you know and love. The term encompasses so much more. Everyone you interact with, whether you know them, like them, look like them, or don’t, is your neighbor. And he was sure to include some racial tension in his example to make sure they knew exactly what he meant by everyone.
And how are we supposed to love our neighbors? Jesus’ answer is really difficult but very clear: by totally altering our plans and path to go above and beyond in caring for people without ever expecting anything in return. The way Jesus talked about it, loving your neighbor is wholly inconvenient, wildly selfless, and nearly impossible to do well all the time.
If that sounds like the bar is set too high, know that Jesus appreciated the little acts of kindness and generosity, too. There’s a brief story where Jesus sees two people giving money away. The first is a rich man who gives a great sum of money and makes a big show of it. The second is a poor widow who gives a single coin. Jesus points out the widow and praises her generosity because even though her offering was small, she still gave it despite having little money to her name. Jesus’ economy is backward. It doesn’t care about big numbers or showy results. It cares about intentions. It’s an economy of kindness, not money. If all you can muster is a tiny display of generosity each day, know that it makes a difference.
Scripture References: Leviticus 19:18, Luke 10:25-37, Mark 12:41-44