On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”.
-Luke 10:25-29 (NIV)
Maybe I should be more careful how I phrase that. I don’t mean that it is dumb. I don’t even mean that you’re dumb if you do. (Though no one ever admits to hating their neighbor, so I doubt anyone will take offense there. Not yet, at least.)
I mean that when you hate your neighbor your mind and heart are clouded. Your vision is obscured. You get tone-deaf.
The “expert in the law” who questions Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is a good example. In Luke, the confrontation comes right after Jesus has praised God for hiding his work “from the wise and learned” and letting “little children” see it instead. I’m reminded of how kids have to learn to hate. Grown-ups bring everything they’ve learned and know to the table: to be suspicious, to doubt the integrity of others, to presume that their own worldviews are the only ones. They bring their prejudices and assumptions and bitterness over past hurts. Kids have less of that, and so they have to be taught to hate.
So this wise, learned “expert” in religion (think seminary professor instead of lawyer) comes to Jesus with a question: “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” The question is reasonable: he seems to be asking whether there’s a way to get around this death thing. It’s kind of the question religion exists to answer, right? Makes sense that he might want to know what Jesus thinks about it — if for no other reason than as a test.
Because he feels like he knows the answer, doesn’t he? Jesus answers his question by asking his thoughts on the subject, and the guy isn’t at a loss for words. He quotes some Scripture: Love God with an undivided being and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. And Jesus agrees: “Right on. Do that and you’ll be in good shape.”
Reasonable question, good answer. Except that’s not all. There’s more in this guy’s heart. He wants to “justify himself,” Luke tells us. The easy answer doesn’t quite cut it for him. He has one more question, and it’s the hot-button one. No one argues about “love your neighbor as yourself.” What they argue about is what comes next: “Who is my neighbor?”
Now you know exactly why he asks that. It’s not that he’s there with a notepad and a pencil, ready to jot down a list of neighbors he then needs to go love. He’s asking for the same reason any of us ask that question: he already has a list. And it’s a list of people he’s absolutely not going to love.
This is what I mean: hating your neighbor will make you dumb. It will make intelligent, capable, and even religious people behave like morons. It will make us unable to see, hear, or feel anything beyond our narrow self-concern. It will make us tone-deaf to the love and grace of God. It will make it impossible for the hurts of anyone else to register on our consciousness.
You know that’s true from the parable Jesus tells to answer the “Who is my neighbor?” question. A guy gets mugged on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s robbed, beaten, and left injured by the side of the road. Thankfully, someone comes by: a priest, a religious person. Say it with me, though: he passed by on the other side of the road. Then another religious guy, a temple helper called a Levite, comes along. But he does the same: he passes by.
Over the last few years, greater numbers of people are speaking out more definitively about the struggles and suffering of immigrants and minorities in America. People throughout our country, the one many of us think is the greatest in the world, are making credible claims backed up by real experiences that they can’t get fair treatment because of the color of their skin. Some professional athletes, by and large the most well-known people of color in our country, are using their stature to draw attention to this injustice. And you know what I hear the most outrage, passion, and feeling about among whites — even Christians? That they shouldn’t “disrespect the flag” by protesting during the National Anthem.
I’m thankful for our country, but I’m a Christian first, and I don’t think Jesus would disregard those who were marginalized by telling them that the National Anthem “isn’t the time or place” to protest. That sounds more like what folks said to black students sitting in at lunch counters than it does Jesus.
Perhaps our preoccupation with honoring the flag only serves to let us pass by the plight of our neighbors without bending down and getting our hands dirty. Perhaps it serves to justify ourselves in the same way that “expert’s” question did: “Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love as myself? Surely not them.”
OK, now is when you can get offended: If you think the thing to be outraged about these days is what grown men choose to do when the flag is waved, then let me suggest as gently and respectfully as I can that you’re passing your neighbor by, too. You’re passing by the real experiences of people of color. You’re passing by the injustice they’ve received; demonstrable, measurable injustice that needs to be known. It’s ugly, I know. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes these experiences will be expressed in ways that seem disrespectful. (That’s what protest is.) We’ll want to pass by. We’ll want to cross the street. We’ll be tempted to justify ourselves. We can’t, though. Not if we want to follow Jesus.
The punchline of Jesus’ parable, you might remember, doesn’t exactly answer the expert’s question. While he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Who acted with compassion and love toward a human being in need? And it was, of course, the one who had mercy on him. Turns out that neighbor is more a verb than it is a noun.
Compassion, mercy, and love start with listening. You don’t have to agree in order to listen. You don’t have to affirm everything a person does in order to listen to their stories and care about them. All you have to do is care enough to come to their sides instead of crossing the street. Come and hear their stories without arguing, without correcting.
This isn’t about politics. It’s about giving people the respect of listening to what they’re saying. A human being created by God deserves that. You deserve it. So do those around us, even those with whom we disagree.
So don’t cross the street. Love your neighbor as yourself. Listen to the words of people who have suffered. Get to know their stories. And don’t turn away. Don’t hold them at arm’s length. Who will be their neighbors?
The ones who show them mercy.