Sunday, January 18, 2015

How to inherit eternal life, part 9: loving your neighbor as yourself

And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?" And he answered, "YOU SHALL 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 YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." And He said to him, "You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE." (Luke 10:25-28 NASB)

We are continuing our study on how to inherit eternal life by loving God. In previous posts, we looked at how to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mindToday, we begin an examination of loving our neighbor as ourself. (You can click on the links to open a new window and review those posts.) 

The question was how to inherit eternal life. The answer was to be found in the law. It was not found in the nitpicking rules that legalizers had added, but in the spirit of the law. This lawyer summarized it all in one beautifully complex, breathtakingly simple sentence. Love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself. The idea of loving your neighbor in this way was part of the law and recorded in Leviticus 19.

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18 NASB)

The word translated as "neighbor" is pl─ôsion and literally means "fellow man." The Jewish nation had interpreted this word "neighbor" to mean the one who lived nearby or a fellow Israelite. They had spent centuries "loving" the neighbor who was just like them. They had consoled themselves by saying that they had, indeed, loved their neighbor. 

Jesus, however, had something to say about that attitude, and we will soon see it in detail. His view of "neighbor" includes everyone. His understanding of neighbor is not limited by location, ethnicity, or faith. In His world view, everyone is His neighbor. Tax collectors, Romans, soldiers, thieves, harlots. Everyone is His neighbor and He loves them all. When Jesus walked this earth, because He viewed them all as His neighbor, because He loved them, He spent time with them, associated with them, attended meals and parties with them, and, as He did, they learned what love looked like first hand. Because LOVE (that agape love of God) flowed from Him to the best and the worst of us all, people were drawn to Him and, in Him, their lives were changed. 

Consider Matthew, Mary Magdalene, and Paul. Our tendency would be to shun all of them, but not Jesus. He loved them, and in His presence, they could not help but change. Just for a moment, imagine how you would have responded to those few people. Would you have spent time with a corrupt government bureaucrat? Would you have spent time with a harlot, defending her against all her accusers? What about one of the world's worst terrorists, Saul who became Paul? In truth, we must admit that we would not have embraced them, and the world would have been the worse for our failure. Jesus, however, loved them, embraced them, and changed them. The story of the extravagant love of Mary Magdalene is still told today. Matthew wrote one of the most important accounts of the life of Jesus. Paul spread the gospel throughout the world. 

There is no way for us to know what kind of plans Jesus has for the unlovely neighbor that we prefer to shun, but He never asked us to make the plans. What He has asked us to do, commanded us to do, in fact, is to love our neighbor. Just to be sure we have this clear, let's review a minute. Our neighbor includes everyone. The terrorists responsible for the horrible death and destruction throughout our world are just as much our neighbor as the sweet grandmother who lives next door. That's a shocking thought, isn't it? It may be shocking, but it is also true. 

It is not the terrorist, however, that gives me the most trouble. It's the neighbor I see and with whom I disagree that is the hardest for me, and, in truth, the one I need to love the most. It is in that very relationship that Christ will bring change. The problem, however, is that often the change He longs to bring is in me, not the one who seems less lovable to me. That, of course, is why I resist the loving. In fact, I prefer not to change. We all prefer not to change. We want to love the ones we love. We want to embrace the ones who validate us by their similarity to us. We want to keep those who are different at arm's length. 

Dear ones, we may want all those things, but they have little to do with what God wants. He wants us to love the unlovely because they are our neighbor. He wants us to love all. No matter what. No matter whom. Everyone is our neighbor. Loving them is not optional.

Today, let's look around us and ask God to open our eyes to those who are unrecognized neighbors. Let's not stop with seeing, however. Let's ask Him to fill us with love, as well. There's no doubt about it. When Jesus gets involved with us and our neighbors, change will come, and it will, most likely, begin in us.