Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Life in Leviticus 3)

When I grew up, I spent a lot of time watching Mr. Rogers. I’m not sure why, but there was something about the songs, sweaters, and shoes that just kept me coming back for more. Mr. Rogers loved to ask that simple question day after day for his riveted little television audience: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

In the Bible, we find the theme of being a neighbor all over the place, even if it is a bit more serious than Mr. Rogers. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment in all of the Hebrew Bible is, He answers by saying that we are to love God with all of who we are and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus’ summary statement ties together two commands: love of God and love of neighbor. Like with a coin, they are two sides to the same law of love.

The commandment to love God is fairly easy to grasp. Jesus draws from the celebrated Hebrew shema found in Deuteronomy 6. The shema is an identity marker for the Jewish people, in which they are called to worship and adhere to God alone.

The second half of Jesus’ words, however, comes from the often neglected book of Leviticus. In the midst of instructions about rituals, guidelines about annual ceremonies and festivals, and list upon list of what to eat and not to eat, we find these powerful words: “love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). Leading up to this statement, all sorts of relational situations are mentioned: stealing, lying, partiality in justice for the poor or the wealthy, slandering others, seeking revenge because of a grudge, making life difficult for the blind or deaf, and more.  Into the midst of many real life situations, God is saying that the ideal of loving our neighbor must be worked out in every social arena. It is our response to who God is. How we love others matters to God.

In Luke’s Gospel, we find a more probing dialogue about the greatest commandment, or what one must do to “inherit eternal life.” After Jesus responds to questions about the greatest commandment, a law expert asks this question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Luke tells us that this man “wanted to justify himself.” To answer this question, Jesus tells one of His most memorable stories about a Jewish man who is beaten and left to die on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. A priest and a Levite, both of whom were apparent experts on life with God, ignore the man with various excuses. But a Samaritan – one of the sworn enemies of Jews because of history, geography and religion – comes along and practically helps this man. Jesus’ question back to the Jewish law expert at the end of the story is, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (19:36). The answer is obvious: the Samaritan who was merciful to the man in need was the real neighbor. So, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (19:37).

Clearly, it is important to understand Jesus’ view of a neighbor. A neighbor for Jesus is the one who loves those around in practical ways regardless of divisions. The Samaritan in the story crossed the dividing walls and loved the beaten traveler in action.

But understanding Jesus’ view of the neighbor is altogether different from actually being a neighbor to others. The priest and the Levite understood Jewish teaching and could probably quote Leviticus 19:18 at the drop of a hat. Yet they lived within the safety of their dividing lines (e.g., ritual cleanliness), and so did nothing. The Samaritan, however, who had every reason not to practically love this other person, actually does become a neighbor.

In Leviticus 19, we are given lists of case studies on what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. God wants us to understand that how we love others matters to Him. Jesus affirms that love for God is inextricably tied to love for other. The Apostle James affirms this in his letter: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right” (James 2:8). The Apostle John supports this when he writes in one of his letters: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7-8).

So, how are we doing at being a good neighbor? In our world that is surging with the strife of family infighting, workplace tensions, Wisconsin politics, and global unrest, how are we – the people of God – doing at representing ourselves in every social arena with love for our neighbor?

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