Love Your Neighbor
I was thinking last week about all the things we are learning through this pandemic. And I realized: we now know some new words, that we had never even heard of a few months ago. Back in January, if someone told you they were “social distancing,” you would have had no idea what they were talking about. Right? Social what? But now, if I said to you, “You really need to keep social distancing, because you might be an asymptomatic carrier, and even though we’ve flattened the curve, there are still some hospitals with a shortage of ventilators and PPE. So let’s listen to the leading epidemiologists who are testing drugs like Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesevir, and developing the antibody testing and contact tracing that we need. So even if you haven’t received your stimulus check or your PPP loan, please continue to shelter in place,” you just understood everything I said, right? In eight weeks we’ve become fluent in an entirely new language! We’ve learned a lot.
But here’s what I keep wondering: besides all the new words, are we really learning anything at all?
We are taking six weeks to talk about “Lockdown Lessons”—the deep, life-shaping things that God wants to teach us during this pandemic, that we might not learn at any other time. And one of the things I’m convinced that we’re supposed to learn is to love our neighbors. I really believe—and I’ve seen evidence already—that this crisis can make us more self-absorbed and oblivious to the people around us, or, it can make us more tuned in and connected with the people around us. We can go either way, depending on how we respond. So today’s Lockdown Lesson is “Love Your Neighbor.”
Let’s look at the passage together—Luke 10, beginning in verse 25. Hear the Word of the Lord…
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” This is the Word of God.
Before I lay out the points, let me set this up. Jesus is approached by an “expert in the law”—so this is a man who knows the Hebrew Scriptures really well. And he asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus answers the question by a asking another question: “What is written in the law?” Because this was a guy who knew the Scriptures. And the guy says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” So he quotes two Old Testament commands, one from the book of Deuteronomy and the other from the book of Leviticus. And Jesus says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
Now: if this guy really knew himself, he might’ve said, “Wow—so you’re saying I’m supposed to ‘do this—love God and love people as much as I love myself—all the time? That’s an impossible standard. Jesus, could you help me do this better?” If he had said that, the conversation might have gone in a completely different direction. But he didn’t say that. Instead, verse 29 says “he wanted to justify himself.” Oh, man. This guy is so much like us. So he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Like, I’m pretty sure I’m good here. But just to clarify: Jesus, when you say “neighbor,” what exactly do you mean? He’s hoping Jesus will narrow it down like, “Just your family and the people who go to your synagogue.” So that he can say, “Yeah—that’s what I thought. I love them.” The guy had no idea what he was setting himself up for.
So, as he often did, Jesus tells a story. And in this story, we learn four things about what it means to love our neighbor: Seeing your Neighbor, Avoiding your Neighbor, Loving your Neighbor, and The Ultimate Neighbor. Seeing your neighbor, avoiding your neighbor, loving your neighbor, and the ultimate neighbor.
So, first, Seeing your Neighbor. In the story Jesus tells, there’s a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. That’s about a 17-mile journey on a steep, windy road. All along that road, there are little caves, which were perfect hideouts for bandits. The first-century historian Josephus wrote that people who traveled that road often took weapons to protect themselves. So this was like walking through South-Central L.A., or inner-city Detroit, at night. And sure enough, the man was attacked, stripped, robbed and beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road.
So let’s step back for a minute. The man asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus launches into a story about an assault victim lying on the road. Why? Because you and I are surrounded by wounded and hurting people. So if we want to understand what Jesus means by loving our neighbor, we have to understand that this man lying on the road represents people in our lives. So…what does that look like—especially during a time like this?
Sometimes it’s obvious, like a guy bleeding on the road. Right now there are people hooked up to ventilators, fighting for their lives. Jesus says, “That’s your neighbor.” Or the families of those sick people, as they desperately pray for the survival of their father or mother or grandparent, or even their child. Jesus says, “Those are your neighbors.” Or the hair salon owner or restaurant owner who are having a really hard time paying next month’s mortgage, and they’re wondering if their business will survive at all. Jesus says, “Those are your neighbors.” Most of us know someone like that, and it’s no accident that God has put us in their lives. And God is using this crisis to connect us with them in ways we never would have otherwise.
Sometimes the pain that people carry is not so obvious. People who are struggling with mental illness and addiction, and now they feel more isolated in their pain than they ever have. For them, social distancing is devastating. Or how about retirement communities and assisted living facilities? Behind those manicured gardens and fountains, there is a crushing problem going on. It’s called loneliness. As our culture becomes more busy and wealthy and technologically advanced, we are becoming severely disconnected. And the pandemic has made it worse.
See, some of the victims on the road aren’t so obvious, but believe me, they’re there. And in order to love them, we need to see them. So maybe for you, the first step is just to pray this simple prayer, “Lord, open my eyes. Help me to see the people who are beat up, lying by the side of the road, that I’ve been missing. I want to see.”
But seeing isn’t enough. Because you can see, but choose not to act. So let’s talk about Avoiding your Neighbor. Jesus continues the story—verse 31: A priest happened to be going down the same road…And I’m sure the people listening to Jesus thought, “Whew! Help is on the way! Of all the people who could pass by, it’s a guy who does good deeds for a living!” But here’s the first surprise, in a story that’s full of surprises: and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. Well that’s weird. He must have a good reason. But here comes someone else! So too, a Levite…Levites were people from the tribe of Levi, and they assisted the priests in the temple. Surely this guy will stop. But once again…when he came to the place and saw him, he too passed by on the other side.
What’s going on here? Did they fear they would get jumped themselves? Like, maybe this was a setup? Did they fear being made ceremonially unclean? You know, there were laws about touching sick or dead people, and becoming unclean—so that you couldn’t perform your priestly duties for a while. Were they just in a hurry? I don’t know.
Back in the 1970s, Princeton Seminary conducted a study. They took a group of theology students, and they told them they needed to go to a building on the other side of the campus and give a sermon about the Good Samaritan, and they need to hurry because they didn’t have much time. Little did the students know, they had also hired an actor to play the part of a victim who was coughing and suffering and asking for help, sitting right along the path to that building. Perfect setup, right? So, what happened? Ninety percent of the students completely ignored the suffering person. In fact, the study said this: “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!”
That’s pretty sad, right? But it’s easy to judge them. What about us? When we’re confronted with someone in need, what is it that keeps us from stopping and showing love?
I can think of three big reasons. First: self-righteousness. When we see someone struggling with life, don’t we sometimes feel like they brought it on themselves? So why should we help? What we don’t realize is that we could easily be in their position. The sociologist Brené Brown said it like this:
We are “those people.” The truth is…we are the “others.” Most of us are one paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one sexual assault, one drinking binge, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being “those people”—the ones we don’t trust, the ones we pity, the ones we don’t let our children play with, the ones bad things happen to…
I wonder if the priest and the Levite felt just a little too good for the guy on the road. I think sometimes that’s what stops us from helping.
The second reason is busyness. We’re so fixed on our agenda, and we have so little margin in our lives, and we think to ourselves: if I spend time with this person, I’ll never get everything else done. So we get protective with our time. The third reason is messiness. We fear getting sucked into something that’s going to drain us, and we doubt we can fix it. What we don’t realize is that God doesn’t ask us to fix people—that’s His job; he just asks us to love them.
So here’s the question: how do we push past our resistance, and actually love our neighbor as ourselves? Let’s talk about Loving your Neighbor. Verse 33: 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. What does this tell us about loving our neighbor? I see two main things:
First, it’s non-discriminating. This is the biggest surprise of this passage: a Samaritan! When Jesus said that word, it’s hard to explain the reaction his Jewish listeners would have had. Because when we hear the word, we immediately think, what? “The Good Samaritan.” We think of a good guy! Not if you were Jewish person in the first century. Samaritans were people who had some Jewish blood, but it was mixed with Gentile blood, and there was huge hostility between the two races. Suspicion. Mistrust. Deep prejudice.
It’s hard to find a modern-day equivalent. Maybe today, because our country is so divided politically, it would be like this: if you are a very conservative person, how do you relate to lesbian woman in your office—you know, the one who wears the “Planned Parenthood” shirt and gets all her news from CNN and NPR? I’m not asking if you agree with all her beliefs; I’m asking how you feel about her as a human being. Maybe for you, that’s the Samaritan. Or if you’re more progressive, how do you relate to that guy with the NRA sticker on his car—you know, the guy with the “Make America Great Again” hat, who watches only Fox News? Maybe that’s your Samaritan. Because the way you feel about that person—that’s the way Jews felt toward Samaritans—but even stronger.
See, loving your neighbor sometimes means getting to know people, and caring about people that are very different from us. We’re going to need some supernatural help, don’t you think?
Secondly, this kind of love is sacrificial. It’s not just emotions or words. The Samaritan guy gave up his time. Right? I don’t know where he was heading, but he changed his plans for this guy. He gave his own oil, and his own wine to treat the guy’s wounds. He put the guy on his own donkey (that must have been a mess). He took him to an inn, and he stayed overnight with him. The next day, he paid for the inn with his own money. And even when he had to leave, he made arrangements for the guy to be cared for, and he promised to stop back and check on him, and cover any additional expenses. In other words, this love that Jesus taught was sacrificial. It’s not a Facebook “like.” It will cost us: money and time and convenience.
Love that’s non-discriminating and sacrificial. What might this look like for us, at a time like this? Let me give you a few examples from just the past couple of months…
Some of our neighbors who are struggling the most are poor and homeless people. So at the very beginning of the lockdown, The Chapel reached out to Star of Hope in Paterson, and The Salvation Army in Montclair. They both said there’s an urgent need for food in the people they serve. So we’ve been collecting food on the front porch of our Lincoln Park Campus. It was slow at first—I think people were afraid to even have their germs on food that they donated. But it started picking up momentum, and more and more people are just buying extra food every time they grocery shop, and dropping it off at The Chapel. So we’ve now sent four truckloads of food to those organizations, and counting. Because those are our neighbors.
In addition to our normal food pantry, which continues to provide weekly food for about 50 families, we’ve developed a new ministry called “Chapel Care Delivers.” So we now have 42 volunteer drivers, who deliver groceries and run errands for people who can’t get out. We have partnered with Rails Steakhouse in Montville. This is Jamie Longo, our Director of Care, with two Chapel volunteers, Sarah and Sue, and they’re with the head chef at Rails. So Rails contacted us and said, “We want to donate 20 meals a week to struggling people; can you help us identify the people and do the deliveries for us?” So Rails has now donated over 250 meals, and our Chapel drivers have brought them to families who have kids with special needs, and families with frontline healthcare workers, and families with elderly members that can’t get out—it’s really been tremendous. And now the Red Barn restaurant, also in Montville, has gotten in on the action, and they donated 100 meals to families on Mother’s Day. Do you realize how beautiful this is? These restaurants are struggling because of the lockdown, but they’re choosing to love and serve their neighbors, and it’s a privilege to help them do that.
You probably know The Chapel does a lot of work in Bogotá, Colombia, helping to build churches. So this last week we did a little research, and we found out the situation in Bogotá is so serious, especially for the poor, that people are actually flying red flags from their windows, as a cry for help. People are starving. So we contacted a couple of our partner churches. One of the pastors is named Alex Rodriguez (not the one you think), and he runs a street ministry for kids in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogota (this is me with Alex and his mom). On a weekly basis they minister to about 1,500 kids, about 250 of which are refugees from Venezuela. (This is a picture of our team serving with them last fall). So I said, “Alex, I heard people in Colombia are flying red flags as a cry for help. Are you seeing that?” He said, “I see them on every street. Except they’re not flags. These people can’t afford flags; they hang out red rags.” So his church has been doing the best they can to deliver groceries to people, but they don’t have nearly enough money. So do you remember last fall when we raised funds to help build more churches in Colombia? This past week we sent a chunk of those funds to Pastor Alex, and he’s going to be able to provide food for hundreds of additional families in one of the poorest sections of Bogotá. It might be thousands of miles from here, but those are our neighbors.
On a more personal level, there is a barber in Lincoln Park whose shop is right next door to the shop of a Chapel person. He cuts the hair of a number of Chapel people, including me. And when he was forced to shut down, his situation became urgent pretty quickly. So several of us got together, and we decided to really dig deep and gather some funds, and I had the joy of going to his home, and delivering a big envelope of cash and Shop Rite gift cards. This man is not a Christian, and he was incredibly surprised and thankful for the outpouring of generosity. That’s our neighbor.
Think about this: for every one of those examples, there was someone who saw a neighbor in need, and they could have easily avoided it, right? They could have crossed over to the other side of the road and walked by. “That’s not my problem. The government can take care of that. I don’t want to get involved.” A million reasons to avoid. But they chose the Christ-like thing. They chose the beautiful thing. They chose to love their neighbor.
So how do we live this out consistently? Let’s talk about The Ultimate Neighbor. When he’s done telling the parable, Jesus asks a question: 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” What do you think this religious expert was thinking? Hopefully, he was thinking two things. And these are the same two things we should be thinking.
First, we should feel challenged. Because Jesus just taught us what it means to love our neighbor! So we should be thinking, people are so precious and so important—even people that are different from me. And I need to see their pain, and move toward people, and sacrifice myself for them. And I’m going to open my eyes for opportunities during the lockdown, and I’m going to be this kind of person when the lockdown ends. So this teaching should challenge us.
But also, we should feel exposed. Because if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we fall so far short of this standard. Right? So many times we see, but we don’t see. We avoid eye contact. We pass by on the other side of the road. Can we just be honest about that? One of the biggest things Jesus calls us to do, we don’t do very well. So…what do we do about that? We realize that we need help. We stop trying to justify ourselves, and we turn to God, and say, “Help! I’m not that good at this!”
And when you turn to God, you know what you’re going to see? You’re going to see that Jesus is the ultimate Good Samaritan. He saw you, beat up and half-dead on the side of the road, because of sin—your own sin and all the ways people have sinned against you. Jesus saw you there! And at infinite cost to himself, he picked you up and nursed you back health. See, Jesus didn’t just sacrifice his oil and his wine and his time and his money; he sacrificed his life on the cross so you could be healed. Have you received his healing? You just have to say yes to him.
Jesus is the ultimate Good Samaritan. He is the ultimate neighbor. And the only way we’re going to love well is if we let him love us first. In the book of 1 John it says “We love because he first loved us.” So here’s the secret of love: walk through life with a humble dependence on Jesus, and as you receive his love, keep pouring it out to other people. Be a wounded healer. Receiving love from Jesus; giving love to people.
Let me close with one final story. One of our Chapel members, Barb, works at a local college, and one of the students from the college lost both her mother and grandmother to Covid-19. So the department where Barb works collected $150 to buy a grocery gift card for the student. Barb sent her husband to the store to buy the gift card, and that’s when the trouble started. On the on the way to the store, he lost the money. So Barb posted what happened on Facebook, and she told her neighbors to be on the lookout for a Ziplock bag full of money. Within minutes, her doorbell started ringing. Neighbors and people from all over town started putting money and gift cards on her porch, in her mailbox, requesting her Venmo account. Everyone wanted to help this 19- year-old stranger who they realized was their neighbor. So within hours, that $150 had grown to $800, and then, 3 days after it was lost, the original Ziplock bag of $150 was found in the ShopRite parking lot and turned into the courtesy desk, so they gave the student that as well. It almost seems like God was so pleased with their desire to love their neighbor, that he entered into it and multiplied it in a way they never could have imagined. Isn’t that awesome? And the stories just keep coming in.
So how about you? A few weeks from now, or a few months from now, this lockdown is going to end. And some people will emerge from it exactly like they were before—maybe even a little more self-absorbed. But not you. You’re going to be more alert and more aware of the suffering people around you, and more willing to go out of your way to serve them. And that’s going to change how you live for the rest of your life. Because you’ve taken this time to learn how to love your neighbor. I can’t wait to see that happen.
The death and suffering caused by COVID-19 are tragic, but failing to learn from it would be tragic as well. Rather than just tolerating the lockdown, what if we walked through it expectantly? What if we could hear things from God that we wouldn’t hear at any other time? And what if we emerged from this crisis not just thankful that it’s over, but permanently changed for the better?