Formations 08.09.2015: Who Is My Neighbor?

Leviticus 19:11-18; Luke 6:27-31

Before joining the Smyth & Helwys Publishing team last month, I was an elementary teacher and Teach for America corps member in the Mississippi Delta for two years. I spent a lot of time with remarkable teachers who worked every day to instill global awareness and genuine empathy in our students at all ages. This is no easy task, as anyone who has worked with kids knows. One really great teacher at my school showed her students a diagram to introduce them to social studies. The diagram shows a set of nested circles. The smallest circle represents our most immediate world—our home. The next largest circle shows that our home is located inside our neighborhood. Those are both inside of our city, which is inside our state, which is inside our country, and so on, until we get to the largest circle, which is our solar system. This gave students a clearer perspective on where they stood in relation to the rest of the world, and showed them that even people on other continents are a part of our world.

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We often stumbled into some really tough questions with our students regarding how we are supposed to treat others. So what if they’re a part of our “world”? Why should we care about them? Simple answers to this question include, “Because we want others to care about us,” and “Because God said so.” The more complex answer has something to do with the spiritual and physical connection between all human beings. Scripture and science both emphasize that human beings, despite our varying differences, are all made of the same elements. My students and I frequently referred to the education activist and renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson whenever we got stuck on a tough question about what our world is made of. A quotation from his presentation at the American Museum of Natural History is particularly relevant here:

We are all connected; to each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. And to the rest of the universe, atomically. That’s kinda cool. That makes me smile. And I actually feel quite large at the end of that.

So, when God commands us to love and forgive our enemies, and when Jesus asks us to love our neighbors, are we finding ways to reach our largest circle? How do we actually love them when we don’t see them every day? At the time of both these scriptural stories, this task was probably a lot different than it is for us now. The disciples would have had no way to actively love people on another continent the way these Scripture passages ask them to. The Israelites would have had only rare opportunities to even talk to people from another region. As a global society, though, we have grown up. Our knowledge of who lives in our world has expanded. With the pervasiveness of print and visual media (including social media platforms) we now have the ability—and with it, the responsibility—to show love to people all over the world.

Our neighbors are no longer just the people in our smallest circle. And while these passages enforce a rule that’s challenging enough—loving others and forgiving them when they have wronged us—they also call us to a love that takes action against injustice no matter where we see it. If we live out this love, we are capable of being so very large.

“We are all connected – Neil deGrasse Tyson,” YouTube, 23 Jul 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtWB90bVUO8.

Discussion

• Who do you consider to be your “neighbor”?
• How do you demonstrate love for your “neighbors”?
• How often do you read or hear about injustices in the world around you? How do you react?
• Think of a time when you decided not to act or speak out against an injustice. What were the circumstances? Why did you make that decision?
• Think of a time when you went out of your way to help or defend victims of injustice. What challenges did you face? What were the results?
• Can you think of any opportunities in your school, church, or community where you could take action for a loving cause?

Reference Shelf

Love in the Old Testament

The OT commandments to love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18) and the stranger as oneself (Lev 19:34) are rooted in God’s love for Israel and for the resident foreigner (Deut 10: 18- 19). The categories “neighbor” and “stranger” include every person an ancient Israelite might encounter. These commandments extend from the natural affection and commitment within the family to encompass the rest of humanity. Love can be commanded because loving actions appropriate to a loving relationship are deeds of will, not the spontaneous products of emotion. Commands prescribing such loving actions toward neighbors and strangers constitute much OT law. The command to love one’s neighbor came to function as a summary of the Law (Mark 12:28-34).

Edwin K. Broadhead, “Love in the Old Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 528.

Love Your Enemies

The final beatitude and final woe focus on being hated, or not, by the wider world, so the turn to “love your enemy” makes sense. The noun “enemies” in v. 27 is elaborated by a series of participles detailing what enemies might do: hate you, curse you, mistreat you, strike your cheek, and take your coat. These are all clearly hostile actions, and the command “love” is likewise elaborated what one does in all those specific situations: do good, bless, pray, turn, and let go (lit., “not withhold”). This is a remarkable list for its variety of more active and more passive behaviors, behaviors that match or do not match the nature of the hostile act. Bless is an active and opposite response to curse: if your enemy pronounces a curse on you, pronounce a blessing on him or her. Prayer offered for those who mistreat you is an active but not opposite response, whereas not withholding your undergarment is a passive and opposite response. Since this is scarcely a catalog of all the ways one can be persecuted, the lists of responses are also only examples, and the variety shows that evil must be opposed by many different means.

“Do good” is broad, but it also probably sounded more specific in Luke’s day than in ours: more like “do good deeds” than “have a good attitude.” Those who hate you, in Luke’s thinking, are not just harboring ill will; they are your enemies, those people who populate the psalms who are always trying to trip you up, who laugh at your misfortune, who rub salt in your wounds by saying that you suffer because you are sinful. Your responsibility to them is not simply to have a good attitude, but to find ways to do them good – on the whole, a much more practical goal for the follower of Jesus than the goal of trying to work up what we think of as the emotion of love. That is, once we realize that we have an adversary who is actively trying to do us harm, our responsibilities are to pray for him or her, to look for opportunities to do him or her a good turn, and to avoid any sort of retaliation.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 187.

Michelle Meredith is a graduate of Mercer University, where she was the editor for literary and arts magazine The Dulcimer. She taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi for two years with Teach for America and became even more obsessed with live music and southern food (don’t even get her started on Delta tamales). She loves comedy, board games, roller derby, and hanging out with her dog. She is happy to be back in Macon, Georgia as the associate editor of Formations.

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