“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” ~Fred Rogers
Moving every two years as a kid meant that besides changing homes, I changed communities too. New school, new neighborhood, new church, new friends–it was all foreign for a season, and then it became home.
And then we’d move again.
For most of my life I associated the word neighbor only with those in close proximity to my residence, namely, the people living in the houses to the left and right of my own. Perhaps extending across the street or down the block a house or two.
I’m the first to admit how narrow my scope has been.
It has only been in the last several years that relational and world events have forced me to consider what exactly Jesus meant when He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Who is He talking about? And how on earth do I love a stranger, or harder still, someone I’ve deemed to be my enemy?
The short answer is, I don’t entirely know. “Love is an action word,” I tell my children. “It’s not a warm-fuzzy feeling,” I remind them, as they squabble over toys. We choose to love those God puts in our lives not because we want to, or because it serves us to do so, but simply because we are called to. I can see these ideas churning behind their eyes. I don’t pretend I have mastered this. I am honest with them about the sometimes, seemingly impossible command that we love both strangers and enemies alike.
As we consider how to love our neighbors, we must ask ourselves, who are they?
Recently, on my trip to the Dominican Republic, during a Sunday morning worship service, held in a language I did not speak, my neighbors were an entire congregation of people who welcomed me as one of their own. My nearest neighbor, a small round older woman in a long skirt and tight bun, greeted me–a stranger, with a generous hug and a warm smile revealing her wide spaced teeth. We could not communicate with each other, but for our body language. As I stood there weeping I felt her hand on my back as she swayed to the music. In that brief exchange, I felt as if I had known her my whole life. She welcomed me without hesitation or expectation. I had nothing to give her but love. We exchanged it in kind.
In Luke 14, Jesus challenges our love of strangers by telling the man who had invited him to dinner, not to invite his friends and wealthy neighbors when he hosts a banquet. Instead, Jesus re-defines the ideal guest list to include the crippled and the poor:
But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13 Esv)
Don’t invite your typical neighbors, He says. This is how God extends hospitality to us, how He defines our neighbors–not the usual suspects, those who live next door and across the street (though they are not excluded).
Honestly?–I confess that these are not the people at the top of my guest list. At the root of my reasons for this, I see pride and selfishness as my hinderances to Christ-like hospitality. Inviting the crippled, blind, lame and otherwise afflicted likely means more work for me as a host. Allowances and accommodations will have to be made outside of my usual preparations.
Christ explicitly calls us to extend our invitation and love towards those who have nothing to offer in return. We are to open the door and set a place at our table for those in need, who may be perhaps, the most difficult ones for us to invite.
As Christine Pohl writes, “The character of God’s hospitality frames appropriate earthly behavior. ”
We see this kind of radical hospitality in the story of the Good Samaritan. In the end, it’s the Samaritan man who extends help to the injured Jewish man. In that passing moment, he no longer sees the wounded man as enemy, but rather as a neighbor in need. The Samaritan pays for the care of this man, a stranger, a person of acrimonious relationship to his fellow Samaritans, and yet a neighbor.
In the same way, Christ extends this hospitality to us, with the washing of our wounds and paying for our sins with His own blood.
When we imagine our neighbors to include those outside of our “safe spaces,” we recognize that extending hospitality towards the least of these costs us something. The impact of opening our hands to those in need can affect our personal finances, our time, perhaps even our reputation, as we risk the judgment of onlookers who criticize our behavior.
When we trust God to lead us into unfamiliar neighborhoods, we can trust Him to make the investment worthwhile.
As I look around my own familiar avenues, I find my neighbor sometimes looks like a homeless man we’ve befriended named William. We meet him from time to time on various corners, where he stands with his head always down, hungry and cold. I am not always prepared for our meetings, but by God’s grace, I usually have something to offer. At the very least, we have learned his name, and learned a bit of his story. He is both stranger and neighbor.
If I am willing to look, the people I am most challenged to love and extend hospitality to are all around me.
“We must see all people as our neighbors, especially those who are in need of our help.” ( John Hay and David Webb, Who Is My Neighbor, and Why Does He Need Me?)
*Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons