If you are not sure who your neighbor is, you are in good company. The smartest guy in the crowd (scribe) was the first to ask Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Jesus’ simple answer came in the form of the popular parable we know as The Good Samaritan. This story was meant to do more than inspire us toward sacrificial altruism. The command it underscores is our missionary manifesto. This simple parable is still blowing up our conventional definition of neighbor, along with our responsibility for their wellbeing.
To the first century Jew the idea of a good Samaritan was ludicrous. At best, the terms were oxymoronic. Samaria was in middle of the country, a packet of pluralism, made up of ethnic half-breeds and, worse, spiritual half-breeds. Part Jewish and part Assyrian (Gentile), their degrees and pedigrees were looked down on by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Five centuries earlier, Ezra and Nehemiah’s nemesis was an infamously obnoxious Samaritan named Sanballat.
Also noteworthy was the apathy of the priest and Levite who walked past their countryman without so much as a glance, much less a word. They were in a big hurry to get to Jerusalem to fulfill their rotation at the Temple. They had no time for needy neighbors, especially those they disliked. It was the Samaritan traveler who showed mercy on the beaten man.
I have categorized our neighbors into three relationship groups which I will call neighborhoods. Each neighborhood will be introduced based on its proximity and importance to you. Everyone in your life is equally important to God, but hopefully not everyone is equally important to you, because…well, you’re not God.
We all need a nudge to help us identify who our priorities are. God is not silent or subtle on who deserves our time and attention first.
Our Family Neighborhood
Our family neighborhood includes our biological families as well as ourselves. Pastors are disqualified from leading our churches unless we are first able to lead ourselves and our homes.
To my knowledge, pastors are the only professionals on the planet who are required to win both at work and at home. No pressure there! Healthy leaders lead healthy churches and healthy families, and pastoral health starts at home.
Our Friendship Neighborhood
Our friendship neighborhood includes our friends, church members, and staff. In God’s hierarchy of relationships, there is always pressure to be close to everyone so that favoritism does not raise its ugly head in our church.
Much more dangerous than favoritism is isolation. Too many pastors are walking through life and ministry alone, which is unhealthy and unnecessary. When was the last time you talked to your closest friend outside of your family?
Our Global Neighborhood
Our global neighborhood focuses on the unchurched, unsaved, and unloved—both across the street and across the planet. A Great Commandment leader will always be a Great Commission leader because he or she will love those whom Jesus loved—sinners. If our Lord was a friend of sinners, why wouldn’t we intentionally do the same?
It is important not to get the Great Commandments out of order because doing so will lead to walking in open disobedience, and potentially idolatry. Both have weight, but not the same weight. The second commandment is very important, but without the first commandment, loving our neighbors amounts to little more than idealistic humanism.
As our love for God grows, an inevitable overflow of love for our neighbors will follow.