An expert in the law, tested Jesus with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:35-39)
Jesus’s declaration of the greatest commandment is well-known. Many Christians today are well versed in the encouragement to love God and love others. The command to love God with one’s entire being (heart, soul, and mind), while not always easy to fulfill, is still easy to grasp. Christians must be completely dedicated to God. This is often lived out in praise and worship, as well as ethical living. Again, while not easy to live out, it is easily understood.
The command to love neighbor as self is slightly more difficult. It leads to some further questions. Who exactly is my neighbor? Is my neighbor just those in relationship with me? Is my neighbor someone who shares a common location? Is neighbor just proximity or does it involve more? And what exactly does it mean to love my neighbor? Is this the same as loving my family or spouse? Am I just to be kind to my neighbor or is more required? In Luke, Jesus is asked the question who is my neighbor and he responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan redefining not only who my neighbor is, but what is required of me to love my neighbor. My neighbor is anyone I encounter who is in need. My responsibility is to love them like God, blessing them in a way that leads to a better life.
Here’s the problem, while we understand this truth, we don’t always live into it. We know we are to love our neighbors, we just don’t always know how. We have every intention of going out of our way to meet the needs of others, but sadly, we don’t always find the time. We know we have our own responsibilities to take care of, causing us to prioritize our own needs above others. In this sense, the neighbor becomes a distraction. The neighbor doesn’t fit into our overly scheduled day. We want to help, we may have even planned to help, but the cares of the day take over and we find ourselves out of time.
Perhaps the change that needs to take place is we need to recognize the inherent worth of our neighbors. The Samaritan stops and helps the man who is injured not because the injured man can help him in some way, but because he is made in the image of God and the needs of the injured man are just as important as the needs of the Samaritan. The Samaritan had responsibilities. He was traveling this road not because he was taking a Sunday stroll, but because he was traveling to a different city to conduct business. When he confronts the injured man, the Samaritan realizes that the needs of the injured man are just as important, if not more important, than his own needs. The Samaritan is a neighbor because he understands the injured man’s needs are valid and worth serving.
I will only learn to love my neighbor when I recognize my neighbor’s needs are just as important as my own. That’s the key that causes us to leave our self-consumed lives and learn to love others outside of ourselves. We must not just recognize our neighbor has a need, we must also come to understand that our neighbor’s needs are just as important as our own. Our attitude must not be, I’ll help you if I have time because I’ve got important things to do. Instead, our attitude must be, you have needs, and those are just as important as what I was planning to do, so I will help you meet your needs.
Neighbors matter. The homeless man begging for money has needs that are just as important as my own. The immigrant has needs that are just as important as my own. The person working the job that we think of as menial has needs that are just as important as my own. If we want to embody that command to love our neighbors we must come to see our neighbor’s (anyone who crosses our path) needs as important as our own. Then, we must desire to meet the needs of our neighbors with the same desire we have to meet our own needs. It is when we live with this realization that we begin to embody love of God and love of others.