I’ve been asking myself lately what it means to be a good neighbor.
I was raised in a Christian home, went to a Christian church, and a Christian school, then eventually enrolled in a Christian university. I learned very well how to love and edify my Christian community. What I didn’t understand was how to interact with those who didn’t share my theology and belief system; those who dressed, looked, and spoke differently.
What did it look like for me to love that person and edify and build them up?
I was fortunate to find that Jesus, the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), has much to say on the topic. When a lawyer asked Jesus how to get to heaven, Jesus commanded him to love God with everything and love his neighbor as he loves himself.
Seeing some gray area in his response, the lawyer asked Jesus to define some terms. “Who is my neighbor?” the cunning lawyer asked.
Jesus responded with a story about a man left for dead, who was passed along the road several times before he was saved by ... a Samaritan?
Many Jews looked down on Samaritans (John 4:9). They were thought to be in a “perpetual state of uncleanness” (ESV Study Bible). I imagine the shock and horror on the crowd’s face as Jesus asked, “Who do you think the good neighbor was?”
The lawyer could barely muster the words. “The one who showed mercy,” he muttered.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus replied.
In other words … go and emulate that guy.
What we might miss from our sermons today is that Jesus’ story was not only profound, but also provocative. Not only does he tell us through his parable that “the other” is our neighbor; he also makes the Samaritan outsider the hero of the story.
Let that sink in. What Jesus is telling me is that his work in the world is not confined to Christians in my community and churches in my denomination. He is sovereign over human history, and he is present in the stories of other faith communities. Their narratives are full of hope and a future. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Athens who fashioned statues to an unknown God: “[God] himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else ... God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:25, 27).
Many conservative Christians consider faith groups through one lens: what they lack. This doesn’t serve our efforts to be good neighbors, however. We also must remember that people of other faiths are image bearers of the same God. And here’s the profound and provocative challenge today — because Jesus is present in their stories, it’s about time the church got to know these stories and learned how to be a part of them too.
This is why I approached the leaders of my church about visiting a mosque.
Congregants of my small Midwest church arrived at an Islamic center in Cincinnati the day before Eid al-Adha, a day which commemorates the sacrifice Abraham was willing to make for God. Feelings ranged from curious to guarded as we unloaded in the parking lot with scarves and long clothing.
Fears were put to rest as we met our tour guide, Samina, a first generation Pakistani immigrant. She gave us a thirty-minute presentation about the tenets of Islam and a glimpse into the life of a Muslim in Cincinnati. Similarities between our faiths were naturally found, and differences rose just as readily. We laughed together, learned on both sides, and realized our own biases and misconceptions. After observing an afternoon prayer, my church members loaded back up in the parking lot with a few answers and many more questions.
At a session after our church service the next morning we dove deeper into the visit, discussing what we found surprising, as well as what is similar and distinct to our religions. We considered experiences of Islamophobia, the Muslim ban, and media representation. Some in the group were able to reflect on such contentious topics with real people and stories in their minds for the first time.
We struggled with the tension between Biblical convictions of eternity and the ability to love and learn from our neighbor. We talked over our personal reactions to watching prayer and the differences between religious tolerance and pluralism.
One church member said it well. If a Muslim like Samina were to move into his neighborhood, he would be more than happy to call Samina neighbor and friend. Through listening, learning, experiencing, and empathizing, this congregant has humanized a religion that makes up twenty-four percent of the world’s religious landscape and is one of the most direly misunderstood. He has grown in his propensity to engage in civil discourse and friendship with the very people he had previously perceived as “the other.”
The invitation to foster reconciliation and restorative relationships in our communities may have been laid out by Jesus over two thousand years ago, but he calls us just as strongly to bridge the gap and create a better future today.
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