The most obvious definition of “neighbor” is the family who lives next door or the older couple down the street. Neighbors are people in close proximity. You can have a neighbor sitting next to you in a classroom (hopefully not too close right now). You can have a co-worker as a neighbor in the next office or cubicle.
How did the people of Israel define “neighbor”? Was it any human being? Was it the residents of the nations around them who were usually seen as a threat? Or was it only the people of their own community? According to Michael Fagenblat, a senior lecturer at The Open University of Israel, in an article titled ‘The Concept of Neighbor in Jewish and Christian Ethics,” in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the ancient law found in Leviticus 19, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”, would have had the narrower definition of “neighbor”. For the people of Israel, neighbors were members of one’s own community, and particularly, one’s faith community—fellow believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These neighbors were to be loved, warts and all.
If we kept that narrower definition of neighbor today, we would say, love the person sitting in the next pew or on the other side of the sanctuary or on the zoom as you love yourself. In 2021, we have some barriers to loving those neighbors, because we can’t interact with them on a regular basis. We have to be very intentional in order to love all of the members of our faith community—right off the bat, on Sunday mornings, those of you joining us on zoom don’t know who all is in the sanctuary, and those joining us in the sanctuary have no clue who is joining us via zoom. Yet we will be taking communion together this morning, gathering around the Lord’s table as one body of Christ. Let’s take a moment this morning for all of us to know who we will be sharing communion with today. I will call out the names of those here in the sanctuary so all of you at home can hear the names of your neighbors. I will ask Javon to loudly call out the names of those of you on Zoom so that those of you in the sanctuary can hear the names of your neighbors.
It is great to love the people in your own faith community, and so we should. But what about all of those who do not share the same faith in Jesus Christ? For the people of Israel, loving neighbor was loving those in the faith community and any who were converted to the Jewish faith in the one God. We must be careful not to assume that the people of Israel were so inward focused that they did not concern themselves at all with outsiders, or non-Jews. Later in the same chapter of Leviticus, the law is clear: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The foreigner, the immigrant, is also to be treated as you would love yourself– with care and attention, with kindness and generosity.
We find many actions and teachings of Jesus which cross the barriers of nationality, religion, or culture, demonstrating his desire to share God’s message with more than only his direct neighbors, definitely surprising his disciples and others. Yet, it is important to remember that Jesus would have grown up with the narrower interpretation of the injunction to love neighbor. Neighbors were members of the faith community. When he talked about the two greatest commandments, love God and love neighbor, he was not putting all of the other laws as subsidiaries to these two, but, along with his ancestors, he was using these two fundamental commandments as the lens through which to interpret and apply all of the other law. To love your neighbor as yourself means that you interpret other laws charitably, remembering how you would want to be treated. For example, if you are enforcing the laws around divorcing a wife, you do so treating the wife as a neighbor who needs love… don’t drag her through the mud, don’t unduly embarrass or harass her, etc, Jesus is clear that rather than focus on who is or is not our neighbor, the focus should be on being a neighbor, and proceeds to give an example through the parable of the Good Samaritan, when the laws of purity which forbade a priest or Levite to touch someone who was bloody should be interpreted to allow the offering of care, kindness and first aid to one who is injured. The Samaritan, a cousin to the Jews, not a Gentile, would have known the law to love neighbor as self and he was a neighbor, despite those laws of purity.
When James pulls out the ancient law, he is using it in an example of how to treat those who gather in worship who are from a different social class and economic standing. He accuses his readers of playing favorites, of buying into a mentality that some should be privileged over others because of their bank accounts, their clothing, and their power in the community. The congregation, or at least some part of it, is dishonoring the poor. James is very clear that playing favorites does not truly reflect a belief in Jesus Christ. They are saying one thing and doing another. He even indicates that showing partiality to some over others is committing a sin, it is breaking the law of God.
An anonymous writer once wrote that the law of God is like a sheet of glass. You can’t just break it a little bit. If it breaks, it breaks. Or you could see the law of God as a tire, as NT Wright suggests. If the tire is flat, it is flat. He suggests that James was pointing out to the church members that some of them were trying to drive on the flat tire of social prestige rather than the full tire of loving neighbor as self.
According to James, showing partiality is definitely not loving your neighbor. And neither is it being a neighbor. However, expanding the teaching against showing partiality beyond the boundaries of the worshipping community did not come until much later.
As the Christian church developed and grew, the interpretation of neighbor in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament still focused on neighbor as being one who was a part of the community, not a non-Christian. Therefore, the neighbor was still the one in your church or your denomination or your ecumenical prayer group, your neighbor was one you shared beliefs and practices with, and the goal of missionaries to other lands was to make the people they encountered (sometimes forcibly, unfortunately) into neighbors. According to Fagenblat, not until the 20th century did Christians begin to use the broader interpretation of neighbor as any human being, no matter how close or how far away geographically, no matter how close or far away in theology, ideology, or world view. Growing up in the 20th and 21st centuries as we have, we have been taught that our neighbors are near and far, people who agree with us and people who don’t, people who have a similar lifestyle to ours and people who live very differently.
We do well to take the words of Leviticus, the teaching of Jesus and the reprimand of James to heart. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, to be included and welcomed. Being a neighbor requires those kinds of attitudes and actions. I know that is a goal of this congregation. My experience has been that here your economic status, your career, your age, your race, your country of origin, your family make up, your language, your sexual orientation, your mobility, your history does not matter. For that I am grateful.
We also are using the law of loving neighbor as ourselves in a very practical way. Your session has wrestled with and now approved a policy to be used when seeking to contract for services like plumbing or electric work or cleaning or childcare. It includes the following as a way to practice racial justice and to take steps toward eradicating poverty in our community: we will give preference to companies owned by people of color or by women; we will give preference to companies housed in Baltimore City; we will expect companies to pay at least the Baltimore City living wage to their employees, which is currently in the amount of $12.59 per hour; and we will expect companies to employ a diverse workforce. This is an intentional way for us to be a neighbor, joining with God in siding with those who are mistreated, discriminated against or economically disadvantaged. We already pay a cleaning and lawn service owned by an African American woman. We already contract with a company to inspect our fire alarm system, our range hood and our fire extinguishers that is owned by a woman. We will continue paying attention, applying the law to love neighbor in the ongoing care for the buildings and property we have been entrusted with by our ancestors in the faith.
I can’t help but think about the song made popular by the television show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. With this song, Fred Rogers, that famous Presbyterian pastor in a red cardigan, gets his message across that agreeing to be neighbors is the way to build a strong and healthy and beautiful neighborhood (perhaps we can think of the neighborhood as the world). His song ends with the question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” It seems the best way for me to ask someone to be my neighbor is for me to be a neighbor to him, to her, to them.
How about you? How are you being a neighbor? How will you be a neighbor? Amen.