We live in a relativistic and postmodern age, one that loves to muddy distinctions and blur the lines. This is all done with high-sounding language, which the first thing that happens is that we find we have lost the Creator/ creature distinction, which puts us in the idolatrous violation of the greatest commandment. The next thing we discover is that we have blurred the lines between us and our neighbor, which places us in selfish disregard of the second greatest commandment.
“But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves . . . Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among thieves” (Luke 10:29-36).
Summary of the Text
The parable of the Good Samaritan follows hard after the episode where the seventy returned from their mission. The issues involve individuals, households, cities, and nations. The parable cannot be filed away in one spot. Jesus tells His followers to rejoice because their names are written in heaven (v. 20). He says that great things have been revealed to them (v. 24). And then a lawyer challenges Jesus (v. 25), and they have an exchange about the two greatest commandments (vv. 26-28). But the lawyer, stung by this, wanted to parse things out (v. 29). Jesus then tells the very famous story about the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan (vv. 30-36).
There are of course national implications, and ethnic implications, and first century implications, and the central implication is that such implications don’t matter anymore. So let us not lose the trees because of the forest. Jesus told His followers to rejoice that their particular names were written in Heaven (v. 20). The set-up question from the lawyer concerned what he individually had to do in order to inherit eternal life (v. 25). He uses the pronoun I. Jesus answer him in kind—do this and you shall live.
We begin by noting that having a neighbor to love means that there is somebody else out there. There are, out in the world, other centers of consciousness which don’t look out through your eyes at all, and whom you are to love as you do yourself. That is a tall order.
Note that you are not summoned to love an abstraction like “mankind.” To love everyone is very similar to loving nobody. What could it possibly mean for you to say that you love every last person in China, one billion of them? This would simply be to confess that you love none of them.
Neither may we—in our rascal hearts—settle for loving the idea of loving our neighbor, instead of our neighbor himself. One understands the temptation. The idea of loving your neighbor doesn’t have any bad habits, doesn’t need to take regular showers, and doesn’t return things he borrowed busted.
John asks how can you love God whom you have not seen, when you do not love your brother, whom you have seen (1 Jn. 4:20)? In the same way, and on the same principles, how can you love your “neighbors” whom you have not seen when you don’t love your neighbor, whom you see daily? The priest and Levite who passed by the man beaten up could have been busy composing prayers that they would present in the Temple on behalf of all men everywhere. But “all men,” Jesus taught, were, in an incarnational way, present in that ditch through their appointed representative.
So we are not allowed to slip off the point by loving everyone indiscriminately. That kind of gaseous approach is nothing but self-absorbed good intentions, which amounts to the bad intention of remaining self-absorbed.
So your neighbor is someone else, and not everybody else. But if this is the case, then which someone is it? The answer to that question is found in the parable that Jesus told. Your neighbor is not everybody else; your neighbor is anybody else. Your neighbor is not everyone, but he is Everyman. When Christ was born among us, He was born in a particular town, of a particular woman. This is why you can always find Christ in your neighbor. Jesus loves humble dwellings—He lives in us, doesn’t He?
So your neighbor is assigned to you by the providence of God. Your neighbor is the one that God has placed in front of you. This is why it is not possible to have a robust theology of your neighbor without a robust theology of God’s sovereign control over all history. How did this person wind up in front of you in the first place?
One of the things we have urged you to do is get to know the names of five of your neighbors—straight across the street, two catty-corner across the street, and one on each side of you. Five neighbors. Start praying for each one by name.
Now let me say something about two different kinds of reluctant prayers. One prayer is hesitant to pray because of an instinctive knowledge that such a prayer couldn’t possibly be the will of God—say a prayer for your company to transfer you to the Big Rock Candy Mountain division of your company, where nubile assistants feed you grapes incessantly, and the skies are not cloudy all day. You think, perhaps, that such a prayer might be a tad selfish. God might say no. But the other kind of reluctant prayer is just the opposite. You aren’t concerned at all that God might say no. You are dreadfully afraid that He will say yes. A prayer for patience might be answered affirmatively, along with the trial that makes the patience necessary.
If you start praying for your neighbors, God might throw them spang into your life. He might say yes. They might track stuff in. In fact, they almost certainly will. The problem with this is that you had just gotten your life set up the way you wanted it, the cruise control all adjusted, with nothing left to do but finish your road trip to glory—and no hitchhikers.
Don’t Be Afraid
When it comes to your neighbor, don’t be afraid to go small. Don’t be afraid to go particular—this is a symphony and you are just the third piccolo. Just do your part—your neighbor is not all neighbors.