Beyond Strangers: Neighboring Relationships as an Act of the Kingdom

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This article also appears in the blog for Mennonite USA. Regrettably, it is a truncated, poorly edited, and uncited version of this blog that appears below.

A few years ago I heard the story of an Amish man who was asked, “Are you a Christian?” I was told that the Amish man paused and looked at his interviewer and then pointed to his neighbor’s house. He replied that the answer to that question can and should be found by asking his neighbor. For this individual of the Amish faith, he realized that what we believe is deeply interwoven with the way we love our neighbor. I love how his answer also shows that he concluded that loving our neighbor is not a specific place of spirituality or heart, but rather a tangible and definable interaction with our actual and literal neighbors.

He concluded that loving our neighbor is not a specific place of spirituality or heart, but rather a tangible and definable interaction with our actual and literal neighbors.

When pinned to answer what was the greatest part of the law, Jesus answered his interviewers with what we often have come to call the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40). Through this answer, Jesus conveyed that the greatest command is simply to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor in a way that makes them closer than family. Jesus stated that “these two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” (Matthew 22:40, MSG).  Jesus prioritizes this commandment in a way that shows that it is central to our lives and faith, but also that loving God and loving our neighbor is an integral part of the reign and DNA of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said the greatest commandment (an integrated reality of loving God and neighbor) was the lens through which we see everything else. 

We too easily overlook that Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan in a contextualized place and question, the inquisitive lawyer first asked of Jesus, “What must I do to get eternal life?” (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus in return doesn’t offer an answer but rather responds by asking him a question about how he understood the law, “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”” (Luke 10:26). The man replied with what we now refer to as the greatest commandment, but for this man, it was a mere summary of the law. Jesus again replied, “If you do those things you will live” (Luke 10:28). However, the man wanted to further justify himself, or find out what was his responsibility and what could be avoided. This man wanted to excuse away this challenging and poignant call of the law, and ultimately this responsibility to and for the Kingdom of God. In the hope of differentiating and excusing, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?” (Luke 10:29, MSG). Or rather, he was asking about who was it that he was responsible to love and who was it okay if he did not love.

“Who is it that I am really called to love?”

To the question, “Who is it that I am really called to love?” Jesus gave us an answer through the telling of the story of the good Samaritan. It’s a story that tells us that it is those who are literally next to us, those in need, who are our neighbors. In the Samaritan story, the man who was injured found that those most like the guy, those easiest for him to love because of their commonalities are the individuals who ignored and overlooked him. In Jesus’ story, the one who loved God and neighbor well was the individual who saw the injured man, despite their differences. It was the samaritan who saw the injured man as his literal neighbor as someone he needed to love and help. In the Art of Neighboring, authors Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon point out that the Good Samaritan (as we call him), engaged his neighbor and moved from a place of stranger to acquaintance and then to relationship.

Stranger Acquaintance Relationship (Borrowed from Art of Neighboring)

There are many points to this story, and in it, we catch that Jesus intends us to live by the summarized meaning of the law, and also that Jesus intends to bring his healing rule and reign beyond the boundaries of where individuals of this day would have thought the boundaries of the Kingdom of God would have been. Within this narrative, the pressing inquiry that surfaces concerns our efficacy in embodying the unified greatest commandment, aspiring towards eternal life both in the present and the future. We must look at how well we are moving from stranger to acquaintance and then to relationship with those in our neighborhoods and spheres of influence. We must ask, “How well do we know those who are our actual and literal neighbors?” For sure, it is easy to love those who are most like us or call our friends and acquaintances at the gym our neighbors, but this isn’t the definition that Jesus gave us. Sometimes, those literally next to us, especially those in need, might be the hardest to love, but Jesus shares that the kingdom of God wants to extend into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable places.

Again, in the Art of Neighboring, authors Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon give us a tool to reflect on what it means to move our neighbors from stranger to acquaintance to relationship. Jay and Dave invite us to pause and think about our neighbors and neighborhood, especially the eight houses that are closest to us. So, let’s pause for a second. I invite you to first draw a tic-tac-toe board, and try to name all eight of your neighbors. Secondly, enter some information you know that is somewhat relevant to who you know them to be. Lastly, write down some in-depth information that you know about them, their feelings and thoughts on faith and life, and their struggles and hopes. How many neighbors do you know in-depth information about? In looking at your notes, how many of them would you say are strangers or acquaintances, and how many would you say you are in a relationship with?

Neighboring Tic-Tac-Toe. Borrowed from the Art of Neighboring.

According to the findings shared in the Art of Neighboring, Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon report that only about ten percent of us can name all eight of our neighbors. Similarly, about three percent of us can fill out relevant information about our neighbors. Lastly, just about one percent can fill out in-depth information about our neighbor's feelings and hopes in life. At best, most of our neighbors are therefore strangers. Most likely, we all have some neighbors that we might wave to from time to time, and at some level, we have moved from stranger to acquaintance with them. However, it would seem in my findings, and in the reporting of the Art of Neighboring, that few of us have moved into a relationship. In doing so, we have perhaps not only failed to embody the greatest commandment, missing out on eternal life now, but also missing out on what God longs to do in, with, and through us. If our faith can be defined in a tangible and definable interaction with our actual and literal neighbors, we have much to learn.

Love First.

I ponder not frequently enough, why it is that I believe I can tackle the world's political and social challenges without first grasping the fundamental essence of the Kingdom of God – the profound yet humble practice of wholeheartedly loving God and embodying that love in genuine, relational care for my neighbor. Far too often, this conversation of loving our neighbors makes the hope of a relationship with them nothing more than an act of justice, an evangelistic project, or a church growth model. Rather, the framework for us is not about justice, evangelism, or church growth, but rather what it means to inherit eternal life. Paul writes in Romans 15:2, that it is so much more than justice, evangelism, or church growth. It is simpler than all of that. In the way Jesus gives us a story of helping someone for their own good, Paul writes, “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (Romans 15:2, NIV). Again and again, we see that the goodness of God, the good news of the Kingdom, and the hope of eternal life are integrated into our approach of loving God and our neighbors.

So, ask yourself: “How are you lovingly investing in the life of your neighbors, to build them up for their own good?” 

For me, am I a follower of Jesus? I hope that answer can be found by asking my neighbor.

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