They say good fences make good neighbors, but I say that all depends on your definition of neighbor. My childhood neighbors consisted of a gossip and the crabby couple in the houses behind mine, and a troubled five-year-old boy across the street. There was also my Barbie-playing-buddy next door. We had a give-and-take relationship—she took off to play with a cooler neighborhood girl the minute she called, and I gave her a satisfying palm print across her cheek after she called me a name I shouldn’t repeat. And last, there were the Bully Brothers. They attempted to lob me over the head with a baseball bat. I, in return, slammed my little, eight-year-old fist into one of their faces. After this, neighbors just became people who shared a street name and built higher fences.
It wasn’t until just out of college, when I moved to the Midwest, that I discovered a different kind of neighbor. There, I landed among a group of nosy, intrusive strangers. They were all in my business, inviting me over to dinner, and game nights, and to coffee and concerts and community service projects. They wanted to know about my family, my hobbies, and most intrusive of all, my heart. It was uncomfortable at first—all the questions, all the verbal cooing as they listened—really listened. I wasn’t sure I wanted to invite these people to my side of the fence, let alone into my emotional real estate. But their persistence and genuine interest in me eventually wore knotholes through my defences. Through them, I snatched glimpses of Jesus and began to understand his intention for community.
After a few years, I moved from the warm, slow comfort of cornfields and bonfires, farmers markets and community festivals, back to the east coast where cities hum and time whirrs. If I don’t pay attention, I’ll forget to breathe deeply, walk slowly, and smell what may be the only rose in a concrete desert. Most people here don’t know their neighbors, and many admit to not wanting to know them. But because of my Midwest community and what they taught me about biblical living and loving, my definition of neighbor is shifting.
WHO ARE MY NEIGHBORS?
Our neighbors are worth some serious consideration, because God includes them in his second highest command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I asked several of my friends who they considered neighbors and the responses varied from “Another living thing adjacent to one’s domicile” and “people who let their dogs bark,” to “friend,” “somebody you trust for everything,” and “someone who has the keys to your house.” But who does God say they are?
This question is as old as the Scriptures. Actually, it’s in scripture. Scholars of biblical law—the Pharisees—loved to test Jesus on his own knowledge of the law. At one point one asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Jesus answered him with another question, which was a common way to advance discussion of the Scriptures. He replied with the equivalent of “You know the law backwards and forwards, how do you interpret what it says about eternal life?” The scholar probably didn’t miss a beat when he answered, “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, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Playing to the scholar’s head knowledge, and probably a bit of his ego, Jesus affirmed his correct answer and added, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Not quite satisfied, the scholar pressed with technicalities, “Okay Smartypants, who is my neighbor?” It’s a moment like this that I wonder about Jesus’s reaction. Did he try to hold back a smirk, an eye roll, a pitying headshake, an exasperated sigh? Graciously, Jesus’s didn’t stoop to scholarly, one-up debating techniques. He took a backdoor, culturally appropriate approach and told this story:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have”(Luke 10:30-35).
No matter how unfamiliar you might be with the Bible, many have heard this story of the Good Samaritan. Its significance resides in the context: The victim was most likely a Jew. The priest and the Levite were traditionally considered his community neighbors, and as such were the most likely to lend help. Samaritans and Jews, however, generally despised each other. No Jew would count on a Samaritan for anything. Yet the man’s “neighbors” left him for dead and his “enemy” showed mercy and the true spirit of neighborliness.
To close his case, Jesus validates his point by again appealing to the scholar’s intellect, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell in the hands of the robbers?” “The one who had mercy on him,” said the scholar. Jesus then punctuated his story—and for all we know rendered the scholar speechless—with a simple command: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37, emphasis mine).
It seems Jesus is saying our neighbor isn’t just the backyard gossip or next-door playmate. Rather, our neighbor is humankind—or as my friend Julie puts it “someone who takes time to care about you”—and we should go show him mercy. But go where?
The Good Samaritan story holds a few clues. Because this story is so familiar, at first recollection one might say the priest and the Levite didn’t go out of their way to help the beaten man, and the Samaritan did. But the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan were all traveling the same route. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a busy thoroughfare. The American Bible Society at bibleresources.americanbible.org calls it “a natural conduit connecting the trading caravans, Roman military convoys, and pilgrims. In fact, the quantity and status of travelers made the road an inviting target for the many bandit gangs that roamed the countryside.”
These three men were simply going about their daily business. “The priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side of the road” (31 emphasis mine). And the Levite did the same. These two men went out of their way to not help the helpless. The Samaritan simply took the next step, which happened to be toward the wounded man. I like what this says about the Samaritan’s character: this was a man who both confronted obstacles and seized opportunities when they presented themselves. This was a man who did the right and compassionate thing despite perceptions, despite racial or religious tensions, despite danger to himself, or a host of other reasons he could have used to justify inaction. I don’t know all the reasons the Jews and Samaritans despised each other, but adversary or not, this is the kind of person I want on my side. And this is the kind of neighbor I want to be. The Samaritan demonstrates that we don’t need to intentionally go somewhere to be neighborly; we just need to go where we go with the intention of seizing any opportunity to love, to serve, and to show mercy along the way.
NO, REALLY—WHO ARE MY NEIGHBORS?
“Mankind” is a pretty broad definition of neighbor, so let’s get a little more local and a little more practical. When I lived in the Midwest, I attended Mission Point Community Church, whose mission was to practically and purposefully minister to the people in our community. After each service Pastor Simfukwe or Pastor Hepler delivered the “Mission Points”: practical challenges to live out that week’s teaching. The first challenge was to develop relationships with community members whom we encountered every week—the cashier or bagger at our local grocer, gas station attendants, waitresses, bartenders, and baristas. How could we know the needs of people in our community if we didn’t even know the people in our community? We were encouraged to live like the church of Acts by sharing our possessions with those in need and opening our homes for fellowship and service.
Through this exercise, I got to know Matt, a cashier at my local grocery store. He had been kicked out of his house for making poor choices. He was struggling to pay for both rent and college by working three jobs, and he wanted to reconcile his relationship with his mom and start making better life choices. I told him I would pray for him and through the course of our checkout-counter-length conversations we learned we had a mutual acquaintance. Matt’s high school basketball coach attended my church. I told him he should come visit and say “hello” to his old coach. He said he would.
I don’t know the rest of his story because I moved away a short time later, but what I do know is it was as if this boy was just begging to be seen, just hoping to be heard. All I did was ask about his day and he shared a small part of his life. I had officially joined the ranks of my nosey Midwest neighbors, wanting to offer the same warmth, welcome, and embrace to my community—to the newcomers and the outliers.
The Samaritan demonstrates that we don’t need to intentionally go somewhere to be neighborly; we just need to go where we go with the intention of seizing any opportunity to love, to serve, and to show mercy along the way.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR—ESPECIALLY TO THE BAD ONES?
Sometimes neighbors aren’t as open and loveable as Matt. Sometimes they leave garbage in their yard, let their dogs bark at 6:00 a.m., play their music too loud, and drive too fast. These are the kinds of neighbors fences were built for, the kind who seem like a special brand of the sanctification process—a holy kind of hell. And perhaps they are, because God addresses the friction we feel when we brush too closely to the people around us. In Leviticus 19:18 he gave this command—the one Jesus and the scholar referenced earlier— “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
It’s a tall order, but a vital one. To have any success, we need to approach our neighbors the same way we should approach our other relationships: by establishing good personal and emotional boundaries and good communication. Much like property lines, boundaries define and protect us. When each person knows their limits, likes, dislikes, values, and morals, and is able to communicate them, living side-by-side is much easier. So, if your neighbor bugs you, tell them. Part of harboring a grudge and wanting to seek revenge is due to pent up frustration and bitterness over unresolved conflict. God prompts the previous Levitical command with a conflict resolution: “Do not hate a fellow Israelite [neighbor] in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in the guilt” (Leviticus 19:17, emphasis mine). And if that doesn’t work, perhaps the most loving thing you can do is to dicuss how to build better boundaries, which might include showing up with a hammer and offering to help build a fence.
Perhaps the most loving thing you can do is to discuss how to build better boundaries, which might include showing up with a hammer and offering to help build a fence.
My Midwest community taught me that being a good neighbor is one more way to demonstrate the love of our God, even when—especially when—people are not particularly pleasant or lovable. They unquestioningly embraced me, a walled and wounded stranger, simply because I was part of their community and because they believed in living the commands of their faith. So whether it’s the gossip in your backyard or the coworker that grates on your last nerve, the familiar face on your bus route or the woman on the plane seat next to you, and whether you spend 3 minutes or 3 hours with them, for those minutes you share a common space. For those minutes, they are your neighbors. Now go, have mercy.