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"Who is my Neighbor?"

MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 25, 2011 Various Texts

          A few weeks ago, a number of local evangelical pastors were meeting to discuss what we, as a community of churches could do to reach the city of Duluth.  Unfortunately, for many reasons it is difficult to get churches to work cooperatively together.  There are doctrinal differences about the meaning of the gospel and salvation and discipleship and baptism and on and on.  It was clear that in order for us as a group of churches to work together, we would need to find a very broad Biblical umbrella for us to stand under together.  We also agreed that it was better for us to work independently from one another in this outreach so that each church could do this outreach in its own way.  Ultimately, it was decided that we would do what a number of churches in Colorado had done a while back.  That is—we would rally around the concept of neighboring—loving our neighbors as ourselves as the focal point of our community-wide outreach.

This morning, I want to begin this discussion at Mount of Olives.  Today, we first want to begin our time by looking at the Scriptures to see whether loving our neighbors includes loving our literal neighbors—those who live adjacent to us--or is it a more general command that can’t be taken literally?  It’s easy to think about “neighbors” only in the context of the parable of the good Samaritan where Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  The answer from the parable is—my neighbor is anyone with a need I can address with whom I come into contact.  For people familiar with the Bible, that is probably the predominant lens through which they look at this word “neighbor” when they read it in their devotions or hear the word.  Let’s look at some texts to show that the Bible teaches we should love the neighbors on our block as we love ourselves.  As we will see, We must apply all the commands about neighboring to our literal neighbors in addition to others.

There are obviously many texts in the Old Testament where the word “neighbor” is used very broadly—“Do not covet your neighbor’s wife,” for instance.  That’s clearly a reference not only to the wife down the street, but to all wives of other men.  However, there are some uses of this word “neighbor” in the Old Testament that very clearly refer to the people in your neighborhood.  In the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 19:14, God tells his people, 14 “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.”  The landmark was put in place to show where the property lines were.  Today, we have surveys done of our properties and stakes are driven into the ground to mark the property line.  In the Old Testament, the line was marked with a pile of stones placed on the border of the property.  The command forbids one man from moving the pile of stones marking his property in a way that usurps his neighbor’s property—his next door neighbor. The proverb envisions neighbors whose property is adjacent to each other. 

The book of Proverbs also speaks of neighbors as those who live in close proximity to us.  Proverbs 3:29 says, “29 Do not plan evil against your neighbor, who dwells trustingly beside you.” The proverb assumes there is a temptation for those inclined to plan evil against their neighbor because they are so close.  The author forbids this because your neighbor “dwells trustingly beside you”.  In other words, your neighbor knows you will be more inclined to trust him and whenever someone trusts you, you can leverage that trust to plan and perpetrate evil against them.  Again, this is an obvious reference to the person who literally dwells beside you or at least, near you.  Another well-known proverb about neighbors is in chapter 25:17.  The author writes, “17 Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you.”  Like so many of the proverbs, this one is gut-level practical.  The point is that we should not take advantage of our neighbor’s hospitality and proximity to us by spending too much time there because it will lead to that person having her fill of you and hating you.  Today, we might say “Don’t wear out your welcome.”  Or, “haven’t you heard that a fish begins to stink after three days.” 

All those uses of neighbor—and there are others—clearly mean literal neighbors in your neighborhood.  That tells us that, although we certainly must understand Jesus’ teaching about neighbors to include those we meet who are in need; we must not limit the Biblical commands to be good neighbors to that broader understanding.  We must apply the Biblical commands to those who live near us as well.  Although we must see neighbors in a broader sense, that does exempt us from seeing them in a narrower sense.  We are clearly called to love our NEXT DOOR neighbor and the one down the street.

Now that we have clarified our terms, we need to think about how uniquely important is the Biblical teaching about neighbors and how to relate to them.  The Bible teaches that we must hold our treatment of our neighbors near the very top of our priority list.  The statements the Bible makes about how we are to relate to our neighbors—not limited to, but certainly including, our physical neighbors, are among the most weighty—the most important in all of sacred Scripture.   As we hear these commands, we must ask—“Is this the way I relate to those who live near my home?”  Our second point is—we must feel the central importance of the Biblical commands regarding how we are to relate to our neighbors. 

The text that Jesus quotes about neighbors in the great commandment is from Leviticus chapter 19. Moses says in verse 18 to the children of Israel, “18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  That text is nestled in the middle of a large section of Jewish statuary law.  If you weren’t thinking careful as you were reading it, you would not see the importance of the law.  We really only see how central it is to the will of God for us as we see the profound way this truth about loving your neighbor is treated by Jesus and other New Testament authors.  In one of the three statements of this truth in the gospels, Mark 12:28 says,  28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he [Jesus] answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

When Jesus says that loving your neighbor is the second most important commandment out of 613, that speaks volumes.  In giving these two commands this priority, Jesus is following a well-established pattern.  As we know, when the Ten Commandments were given, they were etched by the finger of God onto two tablets.  The first tablet explained in broad terms what it is to love God, while the second tablet reveals some of what loving your neighbor looks like.  Paul teaches this in Romans 13:9.  9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Again, you may respond to that saying, “Yes, but Paul and Moses are using “neighbor” in a very broad sense of nearly anyone.”  That’s true, but if we are not loving those who live close to us—with whom we can interact using very little of our time and energy, how can we expect that we are loving our neighbor in the broad sense?  If we are not doing that which is easy and more convenient, we are almost certainly not with any regularity doing what is more difficult. IF we believe God is sovereign, then we must believe that God placed us in our neighborhoods with the neighbors we have.  That is at least an invitation to reach out and in many cases it is am implicit command to do so. 

Paul has even more to say that communicates the centrality of loving your neighbor in the next verse.  He says, “10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”   Again in Galatians 5:14 he says, “4 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  James put it a bit differently but with much the same meaning in 2:8, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  Loving our neighbor fulfills God’s call to live out all the law.  In other words, if you are doing this, then you are by implication following all the laws relating to how to treat other people.

We also see the centrality of this command to love our neighbors by the amount of Holy Spirit-inspired ink given in Scripture to defining what loving your neighbor looks like in day-to-day life.  This is only a small sampling of verses.  Leviticus 19:13 13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him…” That’s clear enough.  Four verses later in verse 17, we read, “17 You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.”  If you have a problem with your neighbor, you should not do the Northern Minnesota thing and remaining silent to him but hate him in your heart while blabbing to others about how he/she wronged you.  Instead, reason frankly with him or her.  Leviticus 25:14 says, “14 And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” Don’t cheat your neighbor in a business deal.  Many of these neighboring commands have to do with business.

Jeremiah 22:13 says, “13 Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages,”  Again, don’t steal from your neighbor by not paying him.  Deuteronomy 5:21 speaks for many passages in the Old Testament.  The Law says, “21 “ ‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’”    Be satisfied with who and what God has given you.  Anything other than that is telling God he messed up in his provision to you. The Psalmist also has some things to say about what loving your neighbor looks like.  Psalm 101:5 says, “5 Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.  Don’t slander your neighbor to others.  Whether what you say happens to be true is irrelevant, it’s still sin.  Not only slander, but also gossiping about a neighbor is forbidden.  Proverbs 29:5 says, “9 Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret.”

James 4:12 says, “
12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”  Don’t play God with your neighbor—don’t judge or assume you know the intentions of his or her heart—you don’t—only God does.  James says if we do this, we are putting ourselves ourselves in the position of God--the one Lawgiver and Judge.  Paul puts loving your neighbor in more positive terms.  Romans 5:12 says, “2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  Build your neighbor up—encourage him or her.  The gist of all these specific commands is--put yourself in your neighbor’s shoes.  Ask yourself what his/her needs are—then, ask yourself what would bless you if you were in his place and when you get the answer, do it.  For instance--your neighbor has a large lawn, but makes a modest salary and so he mows it with a push mower.  If you were in that position, would you want your neighbor to let you use his riding lawn mower? If the answer is, “yes,” then let them use your riding lawn mower. “Yes, but their lawn is bigger than mine—that will bring a lot of wear and tear on my machine.”  So?  How does that exempt you from following Jesus’ command?  Do you think Jesus will make that up somehow?  We must hear how radical this is and how important this is to being known as a follower of Christ.  Yet, this radical command is according to Jesus one of the two marks of a believer.

In our culture, it is perfectly acceptable to pass your neighbor on the way to the mailbox with only a tip of the hat greeting and leave it at that.  Do you hear how grossly inconsistent this is with the Biblical teaching?  If we are to live out Biblical neighboring, we must live counter to this aloof, ingrown Northern Minnesota culture.  If we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we must break down the barriers that separate.  But I can hear someone saying, “You know what—if I am to love my neighbors as I love myself, I could care less whether my neighbor greets me or gets to know me.  Therefore, I’m free to have that attitude toward them.”  WRONG!  The reason you don’t care if your neighbor reaches out to you may be because you have plenty of family members and friends in the area to support you—to meet your needs—you don’t need one more.  How do you know that’s the context of your neighbor?  The point is to ask yourself—“If I were in their condition, what would I want me as their neighbor to do?”  And when you get the answer, do it.

What must be clear by now is that God has very strong words about how we are to treat other people and that includes our neighbors.  With this weighty position the law to love our neighbors occupies—the second most important law, which sums up all the others, and the huge number of specific Biblical commands about how to love your neighbor—as you think about your relationship to your neighbor down the street, how are you doing?  If the answer is, “I don’t even know the name of the neighbors who live near me” then we have some repenting to do.  Of course, the ultimate goal with unsaved neighbors—which is what most of us are surrounded by—is to tell them the good news of Jesus.  We have the great commission to tell us this, but Proverbs 12:26 says, “One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.  Where would the righteous guide their neighbor?  To Jesus.

The challenge of course is that, except in the case of mass evangelism or street preaching or cold calling, in most cases before you share Jesus with someone, you want to establish a relationship of trust with them.  People are more likely to believe our message if they know us as trustworthy and in most cases that requires a relationship. And relationship implies that we actually KNOW our neighbors.  Many people have no idea who their neighbors are on the north, south, east, and west of their house.  That means our starting place is to try to get to know these people.  That may mean a conversation over the fence, baking cookies for them, having them into dinner, throwing a block party or any number of other strategies.  It’s obvious from the number of believers who are clueless about even the identity of their neighbors that many have been embarrassingly un-intentional about getting to know their neighbors. I must confess my own sin in this area as well and none of us can plead—“I’m just too busy.” If you’re too busy to reach out to the person near you and who is easily accessible, then you are too  busy and your mission is to find the idols in your life that are preventing from obeying the second most important commandment in the Bible.

One way of strategizing is to take the insert out of your bulletin and note the tic-tac-toe like diagram on it.  The idea is to assume your house is the one in the center.  Can you give the name of each neighbor in the surrounding houses?  One way of being intentional about it is begin to seek to get into relationship with the neighbors you know superficially and become acquainted with those you don’t know at all.  Take the diagram and write the names of the people located in the squares that correlate to your neighbors.  The ones you don’t know—put a question mark and ask God for wisdom to help you know how to reach them.  As you pray, expect an answer and when you find yourself just happening to be pulling in your garbage can at the same time as the woman across the street, know that God is working and by faith, step out and seize the moment.

We’ll speak more about this next week but before we go, we must make sure our motivation is right.  Many good, conscientious folks will hear a message like this and this is the way they will process it.  Wow, I’m really a terrible neighbor. I need to buckle down and try harder—make something happen here.  I need to obey these commandments in the Word.  Obedience is a good thing, but if all you sense is the need to obey, you may very well be headed for frustration and a sense of condemnation.  The Christian life certainly involved obedience—but our obedience must be rooted in the gospel—not simply some vague sense of duty or guilt.  Obedience rooted solely in guilt never works for me. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Some people hear that and their first response is to begin beating on themselves.  Here’s how they reason:  The commandment is to love my neighbor, I don’t even know my neighbor, therefore, I DON’T LOVE JESUS ONE HAIRY LITTLE BIT.

May I suggest that this is a bit twisted?   Instead of using your lack of obedience as a bat to beat up on yourself, start seeing that the way you are approaching obedience is wrong.  You are starting at obedience instead of starting with a love for God that issues in obedience. When you fail, instead of working to solve the real problem, you just condemn yourself for your disobedience which reveals that you fail to love God.  That’s not the gospel.  I told the men at Men’s retreat, the gospel is closer to this.  Here is an area where God is calling you to obey—put a rectangle on the top of a piece of paper and write obedience in it or the command—“love my neighbor.”  The look up Romans 1:5 where Paul is speaking of Jesus and says, “5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations”,  Paul called the Gentiles to obedience—no doubt about it.  But this is gospel obedience because it is the “obedience of faith” not the obedience of law—“I have to try harder.”  We see the same truth at the very end of Romans in 16:26.  Paul is speaking about the gospel of Jesus that“26 has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith.

The kind of obedience to which believers are called is the obedience of faith or as the NIV puts it, the “obedience that comes from faith.”  So, under the top rectangle in which you have written “obedience” put a second rectangle underneath the first one with an arrow pointing up the obedience box.  In the second box, write “faith” because the obedience must be rooted in faith.  This is not saving faith, but the kind of faith we develop as we learn to trust God.  As we learn to trust God, we, from that trust, do what he says.  If you spouse who has shown you nothing but unconditional love and always works for what is best for you, asks you to do something that really stretches you, you are far more inclined to do it for them than if a stranger asks you to do it.  The reason is because you know that person to be trustworthy and out for your best interests.  Your willingness to obey is grounded in your trust in them.

The question at this point is—how do we learn to trust God?  As I said, you tend to trust those who you know love you and want only the best for you.  As you experience their love for you, your trust for them grows.  So, beneath the second rectangle you labeled “faith,” put one underneath it with arrows from it going up to the second box.  On this bottom box put “love.”  It’s as you love God and are convinced of his love that you trust him and as you trust him, you are more likely to obey him.  The question at this point becomes, how do I develop a love for God that will enable me to trust him more so that I can obey his commands?  That is a far better approach than flogging yourself about your disgusting lack of love.  The answer on how to increase our love for God as a believer is in places like 1 John 4:18.  The apostle says, “18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.”  John says that fear and love are incompatible because fear exists on a spiritual plain in contexts where you believe you are in for punishment. 

If you are in Christ and live your life as if you are about ready to receive a “whack” from God, then you clearly don’t understand the gospel very well--that God loves you and from that love removed your punishment—giving it to Christ.  Instead of fear, the gospel produces love because he first loved us in Christ and his work on the cross.  The point is that we never love God unilaterally—on our own—independent of his love for us.  We can’t—aren’t wired that way.  But we can and do love God in response to his love for us in Christ.  It’s as we get closer and closer to the promises of that love in the gospel—internalize them, that our love for God increases.  It’s as we by God’s grace begin to see the enormity of our sin and therefore the enormity of what God has forgiven us that we love more.  Luke 7:47 says, “he who has been forgiven, little loves little.”

It’s as we spend time meditating on God’s love for us in the cross, that our love for him grows and as our love for him grows, we begin to trust him more and as we begin to trust him more, that faith issues in obedience.  Do you see why it would not be good for you to walk out of here thinking, “Wow, I really need to double down on this obedience stuff—I don’t even know my neighbors—I just need to make out a schedule or something?”   There’s nothing wrong with strategizing, but the obedience will never be consistent or supernatural unless it is undergirded by faith in God which is undergirded by your love for him in response to his love for you.  This is what Paul means in Galatians 5:6.  6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”  Do you hear the relationship between faith working through love? When Paul says—the only thing that counts in the context of obeying God’s law is faith working through love—we better not forget that.

Don’t misunderstand.  We must repent of our disobedience—of our hard hearts that don’t care whether even our next door neighbor goes to hell or not.  But we must do it in ways that smell of the gospel. The basis of our repentance cannot be simply because we feel guilty and like a failure and we want to stop feeling that way—we want to keep the rules better.  NO, it’s because we want to live by faith—because we want to express our love for God more fully in light of all he is and all he has done for us in Jesus.  So, get on your face and plead with God to enable you to see his astonishing, scandalous love for you revealed in the cross and from that love to produce faith in you and from that, an obedience that comes from faith.  May God give us the grace to live out the gospel in ways that cause us to love our neighbor for his glory and our joy.


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