I love Mr. Rogers. I have watched his show for years—including now as an adult. I have books and documentaries about his life. There is something deeply comforting about him walking in the room, putting on his cardigan, changing his shoes, and asking, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
We Are Called to Be Neighbors
This call to be a neighbor is, of course, a deeply Christian sentiment. In Luke 10 we find Jesus being questioned by a religious expert, as the scripture defines him. The question the religious expert asks is, “And who is my neighbor?” He asks this question because he understood that loving God and loving neighbor was an expectation of the life that honors God. “Who is my neighbor?” was, then, an attempt to define boundaries around who he was called to love. Likely, as was true for many Jews in the first century, this expert carried racial and cultural animosity towards groups of people like the Samaritans, who were half-Jew, half-Gentile, as well as towards Gentiles themselves, the Romans likely chief among them.
The Jews, of course, had reasons for not liking the Samaritans and the Gentiles. They had religious objections to the Samaritans. We see those objections play out in the story of the Woman at the Well when the woman and Jesus converse about the differences in their worship. The Gentiles were not only ungodly in the Jewish mind, but they were also the oppressors of the Jews. All of this to say, the religious expert wanted to justify his lack of love toward some specific groups of people. In essence, when he asked “Who is my neighbor?” the religious expert was actually clarifying that there were many people for whom he did not consider himself a neighbor – and that was perfectly fine in his worldview.
Jesus upends his definition of a neighbor. Jesus clarifies, through the story of the Good Samaritan, that the whole world is full of our neighbors. He helps the religious expert see that those who follow God and those who don’t, those for whom some might have religious, cultural or racial objections are all among our neighbors. Jesus clarifies that there is no one for whom we can absolve ourselves from being neighborly. But you likely already know all of that.
Kindness Amidst Division
There is one specific question that Jesus asks the religious expert that I think is incredibly appropriate for us today. Jesus queried the religious expert, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” This piercing question reveals the flaw in the religious expert’s faith. The religious expert provided an answer back to Jesus that was 100% correct. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and “your neighbor as yourself.” And yet, even though his answer was correct, Jesus indicates in the story that the religious expert was wrong. Why? Because, although he got the theology right, he got the application wrong. Jesus asked him two questions. First, “What is written in the law?” In other words, “What does the Bible say?” The second question, though, is where the expert got tripped up. Jesus asked, “How do you read it?” In other words, “How do you apply the text? How do you practice your theology?” The religious expert was completely orthodox, and yet far from God. You and I can be completely orthodox, and yet far from God.
We live in a time of great division. We often seem to justify our partisan spirits and our aggressively angry postures toward one another. This is true in the culture at large, and this is sadly often true among those who call ourselves followers of Christ. Consider, if you will, who it is that you think is to blame for the problems in our culture. Republicans? Democrats? Immigrants? Secularists? Religious people? Irreligious people? Muslims? Members of the LGBTQ+ community? It doesn’t matter who it is, but consider your posture toward them. Do you view them as your neighbor? Do you view them as someone to be loved; someone to serve? To be even more specific, ask yourself this question: when was the last time that you were friends with, had extended conversations with, shared a meal with, or served in humility someone with whom you have a profound disagreement? If it’s been a while, or maybe you can’t remember a time at all, it could be true that you have functionally become like the religious expert; someone who is orthodox in your theology, but far from God in your practice.
Both Truth and Love
To be clear, I don’t think the Bible is calling you to abandon your convictions or to give up any attempts to teach biblical truth. Jesus never condemned the religious expert’s orthodoxy. We ought to hold tightly to biblical truth. Jesus’s objection was with the religious expert’s practice. I think the lesson here is to hold tightly to biblical convictions, but to pass them on, and to engage our neighbors, in a way that demonstrates love and grace—in a way that demonstrates the value of every person created in the image of God. Including, and maybe most especially, those whom we disagree with the most.