One of the teachers of the law came and asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
I recently got invited to visit Northeastern Louisiana, which just happens to be the place where I lived for the first decade of my life. I was originally scheduled to do a lot of speaking, but things changed and I found myself with a fair amount of time on my hands. So, I took the opportunity to drive through my old neighborhood.
What a remarkable place it was. I drove past houses and remembered names I hadn't thought of in years. The Myers. The Allisons. The Morans. The Clemons. The Starlings. The Smiths. The Morgans. The Watsons. The Youngs. The Seals. The Whitmires. The Sartains.
These were our neighbors. We all knew each other. Most of the dads worked together. The kids went to school together. We went to church together. We were neighbors.
That's such a wonderful word: neighbor. It comes from the old word "nigh" -- as in close -- and the old word "boor" -- as in to dwell. Your nigh boor is the one who dwells close by.
And think about that winsome question: Won't you be my neighbor? Few things in life feel as good as being invited into that kind of relationship.
Dave Runyon wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Art of Neighboring. Dave is a leader in his church, and he talks about having a crazy idea. He and several other church leaders started to wonder how they could actually make their community a better place. They went to see the Mayor of their city and asked him. His response was interesting.
The Mayor told Dave that what makes a great city is more than good infrastructure. Of course, that's important, too, but lots of places have good infrastructure but lack something vital. He said the most important thing is to have a lot of really good neighborhoods. And the key to good neighborhoods -- again -- is more than swimming pools and tennis courts; the key to good neighborhoods is good neighbors -- people who are committed to living neighborly.
When a city has good neighborhoods filled with good neighbors, crime goes down. The elderly are cared for. At-risk youth becomes less at-risk. Yard work gets done. Property values go up. Test scores soar. An extraordinary amount of social problems would be significantly reduced if people were committed to living as good neighbors.
People trump programs. That's what the Mayor told Dave.
Maybe when Jesus told us to love our neighbors, he was onto something. Maybe this wasn't just a platitude that fits nicely on a bumper sticker. Maybe he knew this was some kind of keystone habit for making the world a better place.
He certainly gave this idea a lot of airplay. It wasn't peripheral to his message. Jesus wanted us to understand quite clearly that it is impossible to love God without loving people. This is why he tied the command to love our neighbors to the command to love our God. The two cannot be disconnected.
Of course, we could have a long conversation about what exactly it means to love our neighbors, but at the very least it must mean to want what is best for them. To love anyone is to intend good for them. St. Paul would state it negatively, "Love does no harm to a neighbor." Stated positively, love seeks good for a neighbor.
Of course, neighboring has changed since Jesus' time. They did not have garage door openers. And they did not have indoor lighting and electricity. People spent more time outside back then, and this brought them into more regular contact with their neighbors. Up until the past century, houses were designed with front porches. I know some of you probably have a front porch on your house, but there was a time when people actually sat on their front porches and talked with the people who lived in the house next door. After World War II, things changed, and people started spending more time in the backyard with a high hedge or privacy fence.
All of this makes it more difficult to love your neighbor. You have to be a little more intentional about it. And one of the things that surprises me is how few churches are actually talking about this. Dave Runyon had a conversation with an Assistant City Manager who told him that from their perspective, there's no noticeable difference in how Christians and non-Christians neighbor. What an indictment. Shouldn't people who follow Jesus be the best people in the city at loving their neighbors?
When I was growing up there on Love Street in West Monroe, Louisiana, no one had to tell me how to be a good neighbor. I watched it happen. We borrowed a cup of sugar. We pitched in to do big projects. We helped. We watched. We noticed.
But now? We don't. At least I don't. And I haven't for a very long time.
I've recently been spending time with a woman who lives in a neighborhood where they do this. They get together. They know one another. They talk. They have dinner together. They watch each other's kids. In other words, they neighbor. It's remarkable, and it's kind of sad that it's such a rare commodity -- especially in a place where there are so many churches filled with so many people claiming to take Jesus seriously.
All I know is I want that. I want neighboring. I didn't know I was missing it until I experienced it again.
I wonder what might happen if we who wear the badge of Christianity stopped trying to convince people that our way is the right way, stopped trying to get people to vote for our candidate, stopped trying to lobby for laws that give us favored status and simply got serious about loving our neighbors.
I realize this won't solve all of our social problems. But what if Jesus was onto something? What if that bit about loving your neighbor as you love yourself -- what if he really meant that? And what if it might do something -- like help create the kind of neighborhood where things are the way they're supposed to be?
Love your neighbor this week. Go on. I dare you.
Photo Credit: Buzac Marius