What does it mean to love your neighbour?

‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:36-37)

For many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, one of the most unexpected (and unwelcome) aspects of the message Jesus preached was how much he emphasized loving one’s enemies. After centuries of being conquered, exiled, beaten, battered, and ruled by one foreign regime after another, Jews were understandably hopeful that the promised Messiah would come with an iron rod to dash Israel’s enemies to pieces “like a potter’s vessel” (Psalm 2:9).

But Jesus turned that expectation on its head by emphasizing — at least in the “now” part of the “now and not yet” kingdom — love and compassion for all people: neighbours, society’s exiles, the unlovable, the “least of these” (Matt. 25:45), and even the enemies who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a classic example of Jesus turning the Jewish religious establishment on its head and challenging his followers to care about love as much as they care about law keeping. When Jesus tells a story where a Samaritan is the hero and a model of neighbourly love to be emulated (“go and do likewise…”), he is presenting a difficult call to His Jewish listeners because Jews and Samaritans were enemies. They hated each other.

To truly follow Jesus means we must love the unlovable.

The “go and do likewise” call at the end of the parable applies to anyone who seeks to be a disciple of Christ. Loving my neighbour as myself is tough because my “neighbour” doesn’t only include my friends, family and the nice, attractive people who are easy to love. It also includes the difficult, smelly, insufferable people I might see as enemies. To love like Christ is to love universally and unconditionally. And that’s costly. In the particular case of the Jews and the Samaritans, it’s costly because it rebukes any hint of racism or ethnocentrism.

Earlier this year at a prayer service in my church, a pastor — who also happens to be an Iraq war veteran — led the congregation in prayer for all those affected by the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria: Christians, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, the military forces, and anyone else being impacted by the bloodshed and terror happening there. But we also spent concentrated time praying specifically for ISIS. We prayed for them because in spite of their evil tactics — their crucifixions and rapes and beheadings of innocents — they are not beyond the bounds of the love and grace of God.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” said Jesus (Matthew 5:44).

What would it look if Christians led the way in this sort of love? Instead of screaming at our enemies on Twitter, what if we blessed them? Whenever the culture incites hate and division, whether in Ferguson or Gaza or on cable news, what if Christians led the charge for reconciliation? What if Christians became known as the most radical of all lovers, embracing both the oppressed and the oppressor, the terrorized and the terrorist, enveloping all with the grace of God?

Grace doesn’t mean we downplay the gravity of sin, of course. God is a jealous lover and cares about justice; when Jesus returns, that longed-for “iron rod” rule will vanquish all evil, once and for all (Revelation 2:27). The knife-wielding, masked jihadists of ISIS will be held to account, as will the tax-evading Wall Street tycoons and the unrepentant, pharisaical churchgoers.

But until then the justice we serve must be grounded in and driven by generous love and the widest-possible understanding of who is our “neighbour.”

Originally published in Issue 20 of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by reway2007.