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by Ted Schroder May 21, 2006

When Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and illustrates it by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, he is saying that we are to love everybody according to their need. There are no exceptions to this command. In contrast to romantic love or friendship, love of neighbor is non-preferential love. We prefer to love our beloved, our loved ones, and our friends, because of our special reciprocal relationships with them. We love them in part because they love us back. But neighbor love is love which is unselfish, which gives and expects nothing in return.

Jesus gives an example of this at a dinner party hosted by a prominent Pharisee, when he noticed how the guests were picking the places of honor at the table. "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14)

This is an act of love that expects no return. It is unselfish love because those whom you invite cannot repay you. Yet you will be blessed by their gratitude and at the final resurrection. A practical application of this might be that instead of spending lavishly on your friends to impress them, to guarantee your social acceptability, and to secure continuing good relationships, you will give to ministries to the needy, as we do through our benevolences.

If you find these words difficult what about the following application of loving your neighbor as yourself? "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners', expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will become sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:32-36)

In the parable of the Good Samaritan it was the one who showed mercy who was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers. Because God is merciful we too are called to be merciful to others, including our enemies. Imagine if the victim on the road were your enemy, the person who had hurt you. What would you do? The temptation would be to rejoice in his downfall, and to believe that he got what was coming to him. But Jesus said that to be a neighbor is to show mercy. This means loving unconditionally every human being, a very difficult, if not impossible task. We cannot do it in our own strength. We need the love, the mercy of God, in us, to enable us to do it. It is only Christ in us who can help us to love our enemies.

It may mean that when we are hardly able to endure the sight of our neighbor, because of what he has done to us, or what he represents, we have to shut our eyes, so that we do not see him when we do good to him. Jesus tells us that we must listen to the command of God, and to become like him in his loving all people, the just and the unjust, without distinction, and not to notice to whom we are showing mercy. Loving one's neighbor makes us blind to distinctions so that we blindly love everyone. We see everyone as a creature of God and therefore kin to us. God has created all and Christ has redeemed all. Therefore we should not pay attention to the differences between people.

The Scriptures teach us that our neighbor is our equal in the sight of God. We do not love someone because we prefer them to others because of their education, or their cultural or social acceptability. We are always going to be tempted to love some people more than others because of their congeniality to us.

We are tempted to ignore a person as though he or she does not exist for us. We are tempted to avoid contact with people who inconvenience us, or embarrass us by their condition. This was the case of the man who fell into the hands of the robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The priest and the Levites passed by and ignored the man. They had their own circles in which they felt comfortable, and this man did not belong to them.

Most of us contrive to live only in our social circle and to shield ourselves from those outside it. We may move from one distinguished circle to another, but on the way we strive not to notice others, unless we should happen to meet someone who is more distinguished, with whom we want to be acquainted, or by whom we want to be noticed. It is important to us not to be seen among less important people, unless we are to be acknowledged as more important, and therefore we can be condescending, yet never so that we can be accused of offending or hurting them. We may be ready to be extremely courteous towards those below us on the social scale, but we must never associate with them as equals.

Academics, intellectuals, writers, actors, politicians, and artistic celebrities, may lecture enthusiastically on the necessity of loving all people equally, but they are anxious to maintain their understanding of their superior status. Those who enjoy great wealth may support the idea of loving their neighbor, but they do so at a distance, and try to separate themselves as much as possible from the common herd. From a distance of concealed patronizing it is easy to recognize and value loving one's neighbor without distinction, for at a distance the neighbor is a figment of one's imagination. It is when the man or woman walks by him, and is close at hand, that it is hard to recognize and value him as our neighbor. It is easy to generalize loving one's neighbor; but harder when it comes down to a specific person.

We discover our neighbor when we follow Jesus, and walk with him. He leads us to recognize who is our neighbor, and how we ought to respond to him. It is one thing to understand that we ought to love our neighbor. It is another thing to act on that understanding. It is easy to think good thoughts, to make magnanimous vows, and to believe in good works. It is so much harder to do something about it.

St. James addressed this problem as it surfaced in the early church at their Sunday worship. "My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes ....have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts....If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers." (James 1:9)

Christianity brought an understanding of equality into the world. The Gospel of Jesus taught that we all exist on an equal basis before God, whatever our status was in society. Therefore we should love one another without distinction.

Shakespeare wrote that:

"All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players."

When the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others - they are all alike: actors. When in death the curtain falls, we are all one; we are all human beings. The distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor's costume that is cast off. At the end we all shed our roles. It is the height of deception and artistry for an actor to become his role in the play. But the differences between us are only a disguise for the purposes of the play. Each of us is a neighbor to the other. We do not exist as neighbors because of our distinctions but because of our common humanity. In being king, beggar, scholar, rich or poor, male or female, we do not resemble each other. In our roles we are all different. But in being a neighbor we are all unconditionally like each other. Our distinctions are temporary, but our neighborliness is eternal.

Take many sheets of paper and write something different on each one. Then they do not resemble each other. But hold each sheet up to the light and you see the same watermark on them all. Being the neighbor is the common mark, but you see it only by the help of the light of the Gospel when it shines through distinction.

Love is blind to distinctions. Love sees through the outward roles to the person God loves, and whom we are called to love in his name and power. When we see a person, what do we see? Do we see the outward disguise or the inward reality of the person? "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Jesus made no distinction between the people that he healed or helped. He ministered to the needs of the unclean, the lepers, the unlovely, the hungry, and the oppressed. He saw them all as sinners needing salvation. There was no racial, sexual, ethnic, religious, educational, or social distinction. He saw everyone as his neighbor.

This is not an optional commandment for Christians. Hard as it may be, we are all called to love our neighbor without distinction. It requires us to act on what we know to be true. It requires us seeking God's strength to show God's mercy to others.

What would the world be like if we lived out this commandment without distinction? It would mean that all the prejudices that divide us would be overcome. What would your world be like if you loved your neighbor without distinction? How would you see the people around you? How would you show them the love and mercy of God? How would you see your own way of relating to others outside your social circle? How would you love your enemies? Seek the mind and strength of the Spirit of Christ to fill you with his mercy.

(Some material is taken from Works of Love, by Soren Kierkegaard.)

An audio version of this presentation can be found on www.ameliachapel.com.

Amelia Plantation Chapel
Amelia Island, Florida.

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