“Let’s all go around and say our name, and our favorite thing about our neighborhood.”
Ice-breakers are perpetually awkward. Not the high school-first-homecoming-don’t-know-where-to-put-my-hands-slow-dance sort of awkward… but they are undoubtedly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the “say something about your neighborhood” tactic is one I routinely employ at the on-going conversations on missional engagement that I am invited to lead. Still, the most awkward point comes with the follow up question.
“By a show of hands, who can honestly say that they know their neighbors in front, behind, and on both sides of your house?”
Regardless of the group of individuals gathered—each desperately inquisitive on how they can serve their congregations in fulfilling Jesus’ call upon them—the response is sadly as predictable as the rote questions asked in the first place. Teeth clench as they inhale, creating a hiss as air is pulled inward, alluding to a sense of discomfort—both in the question and in their response. Roughly a third of the room will raise their hands—though not all confidently. Many will signal a “so-so” response creating a teeter-totter effect between their thumb and pinkie finger as if to answer, “Ehh, mayyyyyyybe?”
Somehow, for all of our sensibilities to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” most of us do not actually know our neighbors. If we are to honor the most foundational caveat of our faith, we must rediscover the art of neighboring.
There are a lot of reasons as to why neighboring has become a forgotten art—culture, legislation, pace of life, and even being too involved in a congregation’s programming have each created an erosion of being a neighbor. Yet, I think one of the seldom considered factors is our own colossal misinterpretation of Jesus’ words.
In Luke 10, we read an account of a legal expert who asks Jesus what must be done to gain salvation. Remarkably, Jesus does not whip out pamphlets or tracts. He doesn’t cue “Just as I Am” to accompany the man’s walk to an altar. Jesus doesn’t even hint at the need to be invited to live within the legal expert’s heart. Incidentally, the thought of Jesus setting up digs in my aorta was always an odd stipulation to me for being admitted to Heaven’s gates—but that is neither here nor there.
Jesus answers with none of these things. Instead, Jesus echoes the question back at the man, who then, replies “Love God with everything you’ve got… and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus emphatically affirms this answer.
I happen to think that Jesus’ affirmation of the man’s correct answer is scandalous. Jesus seems to agree that a major requirement in obtaining salvation is neighboring well. In response to this, the legal expert prods Jesus further by asking the “who” question pertaining to neighboring. Jesus’ comeback is the oft-cited Good Samaritan parable.
Possibly Jesus’ most known parable, the Good Samaritan has been used in everything from praising “do-gooders” to the naming of hospitals. Yet, the repeated use of this parable has effectively neutered any sense of neighboring—whether next door or in the proverbial Samaria. In classic Jesus fashion, I believe that in the manner of how He answers the man, He subtly concludes that the legal expert—like so many of us—is asking the wrong question.
In other words, yes, Jesus provides a nod toward the “who” question—but really is instead answering the “how” question. Why does this matter? Well—for one, if we read the Good Samaritan through a who-only lens, we will oddly fail to neighbor our actual neighbors. Rather, when we read the parable through a how-lens, we are able to see that Jesus wasn’t negating the home next door, or family down the road—He was really extending the scope of the neighborhood—thereby condemning homogeneous living.
Jesus does not erase the importance of geographical neighboring—in fact, the indictment against both the priest and Levite was their relocation away from the need on the road (see Luke 10:31-32). Furthermore, the actions of the priest and Levite are particularly biting for many within our churches, in that, each man’s failure to neighbor also included their preoccupation with the perceived obligation of worship. As I alluded earlier, I believe that many of us are very good church-goers; just not very good neighbors.
But perhaps what is most formative from Jesus’ parable is shifting the term neighbor from a passive noun to an active verb. It, like free-form jazz, a Jackson Pollack painting, or a hip-hop battle, is indeed an art. Truly, the art of neighboring is an art that thrives with thoughtful improvisation. And like any true form of art, the opportunities to hone the art of neighboring are bountiful. The starting point is across the street and next door to each of us.