When asked as a Christian pastor to share a message on “loving our neighbor”, the topic initially seemed simple. For me one of the most common stories of the bible is that of the Good Samaritan and the command to love our neighbor.
When asked, “who is my neighbor” Jesus tells a story of a man stripped, robbed, and beaten to within an inch of his life and left on the side of the road. He tells of two men, men we would have expected to be holy and helpful, who not only don’t help, but who avoid him at all costs. And then we hear of a third man, the Samaritan, who comes and tends to the man, who takes him to shelter, cares for him through the night, and then pays for his care while the Samaritan man is away. This Samaritan went above and beyond. Maybe even this seems do-able. Helping people who are bleeding and dying doesn’t take much of a stretch of our imagination. Generally, I think we want to help people, especially those of us who are people of faith. We want to do good. We want people to be cared for. We want to love our neighbor.
Now, when I hear the word “neighbor” I think of the boys across the street I used to play with, or the lady next door who used to give me candy. I think of people who would buy my Girl Scout cookies or band candy. I think of people I know and loved and spent much time with.
And when Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, I am happy to go along. But in reading this text and really studying it, one finds the part of the story that does not come across readily to a modern reader-- that the Jews and the Samaritans were enemies. These were people who did not associate with one another, they were taught to hate each other. The man in the story wasn’t actually a neighbor, he wasn’t beloved and well known; he was an enemy. Jesus tells us that we are to love our enemy. Well that’s a bigger sacrifice.
And in essence, what Jesus tells us is that love means sacrifice.
Love doesn’t necessarily mean that warm fuzzy feeling we get—love is a verb. It requires action. Love is something we do. And this neighborly love of which Christ speaks is to be offered to those who challenge us to love them. It’s to be shared with your belligerent neighbor, your neglectful so-called friends, it’s for the addict who keeps promising to quit and doesn’t. It’s for the sinner who simply disgusts you with their actions.
This commandment is a challenge. It’s not simple or easy. It means trying and trying again, even when you don’t want to. It means persisting with those who seem to simply refuse to be loved.
And this persistence is warranted not so we can be considered great lovers of people, but so that others will know the greatness of God’s love. Christ tells us that loving a friend or family member is no challenge, the true test comes when we love our enemy, and in showing love for that person—the true abundance of God’s love shines through.
Recently I was having trouble with a situation and my sister offered to pray for me. In her prayer, she said, “and may the reconciliation offered be such that it cannot be mistaken for human action, but can only be seen as your doing, O God.” In a way, that’s the purpose of Jesus’ command to love our enemies—so that the love shown cannot be mistaken for human action devoid of the divine, but instead so that everyone who sees the love shown between enemies would know that God’s love is more powerful than our hatred, disgust, hurt, and bitterness.
The Greek word used for love here is agape. Agape is the love God showed through the person of Jesus Christ—self-giving love that persists through life’s greatest challenges. And when we show agape to others, we aren’t simply loving, we are showing a glimpse of the divine—we are helping God to be made manifest in the lives of others.