Neighbors - Loving Them Like Ourselves

Bible Book: Matthew  22 : 34-40
Subject: Love for Other; Love for Neighbors; Command to Love

In the words of Mr. Rogers: "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood; a beautiful day for a neighbor. Won't you be mine? Could you be mine? "It's a neighborly day in this beautywood; a neighborly day for a beauty. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?" I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you. So let's make the most of this beautiful day. Since we're together we might as well say, would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won't you be my neighbor? Won't you please, won't you please? Please, won't you be my neighbor?"

Well, Mr. Rogers of children's television fame is not the first to consider neighbors as among the most important relationships of life. There was a very religious man long ago, a Pharisee, who came to Jesus one day and asked Him a question. "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of all?" And, of course, you see the response of Jesus in verse 37. But in verse 39 Jesus emphasized the importance of loving your neighbor even as you love yourself. And that's what we're thinking about today.

I. The Magnitude of this Commandment

Now, I want you to understand that what we are considering today is not incidental or insignificant, but it is extremely important. Jesus takes this issue of neighborliness and loving your neighbor and lifts it to a place of vital significance. In fact, if you will look in verse 40, Jesus said, "On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets." Now, I want you to understand that the Pharisees had lots of laws. They majored on minors. They had difficulty in keeping the main thing the main thing. Now, let me give you an example. God gave to Moses, and thereby to the children of Israel, the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments pertains to keeping the Lord's Day holy, and to keep it as a day of rest. The Pharisees began looking at that commandment, and they decided they needed to define rest and interpret that commandment for the people. And so they drew up a lot of rules over the years to define rest and regulate the observance of the Sabbath day. They eventually came up with 1,521 things, which were not permissible on the Sabbath day. I want us to consider what they came up with.

There shall be no work on the Sabbath. So a man must be still. He must not shave or ride horseback. If his ox falls in the ditch, he can pull the ox out. But if a man falls in the ditch, he must stay there until the Sabbath is over.
Eggs laid on the Sabbath day must not be eaten. The hens have been working. They have violated the Sabbath day. Their eggs should not be consumed.
If a flea bites a man on the Sabbath, he must not scratch it, but let it bite in peace, for trying to scratch the flea would be hunting on the Sabbath day.
You may not kindle a fire on the Sabbath day no matter how cold it gets, for kindling a fire on the Sabbath day is considered work.
Untying knots, which needed only one hand for unraveling, was permissible. But if two hands were required, this was work and absolutely forbidden.
Rescuing a drowning man on the Sabbath day was not permitted, for the effort required to rescue a drowning man would be too strenuous, and thus classified as work.

You can see how ridiculous this became. The law said not to carry a burden on the Sabbath, so they argued for centuries over the definition of a burden. If a burden could not be carried, could it be dragged? How far could it be dragged? When could it be dragged? When did the Sabbath really begin and when was it over? Was it from sunrise to sundown? Fine. When did the sun rise? When the first rays peaked over the horizon or when the top half of the sun appeared? When the bottom half passed ground level? Just when? Was it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Was healing work? If so, are the sick to be left to die? And, you know, we get in the same kind of stuff.

Do you know how the word "sundae" came to be? Around 1875 the city fathers of Evanston, Illinois, passed a law forbidding the sale of ice cream sodas on Sunday. Someone thought of serving ice cream with syrup, but no soda water. This Sunday delicacy became quite popular so that on weekdays many people asked for sundaes. City officials objected to naming the dish after the holy day so they changed the spelling. And they called what had originally only been offered on Sunday a sundae, and it's been that ever since.

You know, when the Puritans came to America they held the same idea. They made all these rules about keeping the Sabbath day. A certain sea captain who lived in Massachusetts had been absent from home for two years. He returned home on Sunday and his wife met him at the gate, and he kissed her. This was not lawful on Sundays, so the Puritans put him in stocks for desecrating the Lord's Day. So you see how the Pharisees majored on minors. Jesus addresses this very same issue in the next chapter.

Look in Matthew 23:23 and 24 (read). Do you see what's happening here? The Pharisees believed in tithing. And they were even tithing a portion of all the little herbs that they were growing in the garden.   I mean, they had their tithe figured out to the decimal points. But they were overlooking things like justice and mercy and faithfulness. And Jesus said, "You guys are straining at gnats." Let me give you an illustration of somebody who majored on minors and forgot the important things.

Do you remember Litterial Greene who played basketball over at the University of Georgia? If I remember correctly, he was all-conference and he was third string all-American. He went on to play for the Orlando Magic for a couple of years. I think he's now playing basketball overseas. But when Litterial Greene was a senior, the University of Georgia basketball team went to play the University of Kentucky. It was an important game and they had had some rigorous practices to get ready to play the Wildcats from Kentucky. And coach Durham had tried to prepare them mentally for the game.

They took their flight to Lexington, Kentucky. They checked in their hotel. They rested for a period of time. And then they went to Rupp Arena for the big game. Litterial Greene was the team leader, the best player on the team. He had practiced. He had worked. He had prepared himself physically, mentally, emotionally for this big game. But when Litterial Greene came to the locker room and opened his tote bag, he realized to his great dismay that he failed to pack his game shorts. The team manager did not pack an extra pair. So what are you going to do in a situation like that? Litterial Greene was afraid to tell the coach that he had forgotten to pack his shorts. So he went to a player on the team by the name of John Lilly who just happens to be a wonderful Christian young man, a friend of our family's, but who did not get to play very often. And he talked John Lilly into letting him wear his game pants. So when John Lilly dressed for the game and put on his game jersey, he put on his warm-ups, including those tear-away pants they have. But he did not have his game shorts underneath the tear-away warm-ups. In the second half, Kentucky pulled far ahead of the Georgia Bulldogs. And it was in those game situations when there was little hope of a victory that coach Durham would often put in John Lilly. Lilly said that he sat on the far end of the bench, as far away from the coach as possible, and looked as inconspicuous as he could look, in hopes that the coach would not see him and call on him to go into the game. Because he would have hated to tell the coach that he did not have on any game shorts. Well, he didn't get called on to go in the game. And it really was not his fault. It was Litterial Greene's problem.

But like Litterial Greene, so often we consider all of the details, but we leave off those things, which should be so obviously significant. In fact, if you'll look at the Ten Commandments, they can be divided into two sections. The first four commandments deal with this vertical relationship to God. The last six commandments deal with our horizontal relationship with others. And Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into two, and He said, "The first commandment is to love God with all of your heart. And the second commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. And on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

It's kind of like that charm bracelet Martha Jean used to wear when we were dating. On that charm bracelet there was a megaphone that represented her years as a cheerleader in high school. There was a blue key National Honor Fraternity pin that I gave her that she had made to go on her charm bracelet. And she had eight or ten different things on that charm bracelet. But it was the bracelet itself that was the centerpiece for all of those charms. And all of those charms, as beautiful and meaningful as they might have been, were dependent upon that bracelet to hold them together.

And so Jesus said, "All the commandments, all the laws, all of these important spiritual considerations hang on these two spiritual principles. They are, number one, loving God and, number two, loving your neighbor." And He said these two things are never to be trivialized. They are not to be minimized. They are not to be considered as insignificant. These two things are monumental. They are of supreme importance. So we see the magnitude of this commandment. But then, secondly, I want us to see,

II. The Meaning of this Commandment

Now, some of you may be saying, "Now, preacher, it's pretty obvious what it means when Jesus says that we're to love our neighbors. It means that we're to love our neighbors." But, you know, sometimes it's really easy to love our neighbors in theory, but very difficult to love them in practice. You know, there was a time when Jesus was emphasizing this same point and a lawyer, really trying to trap Jesus, asked the question: "Who is my neighbor?" And in response to that question, in Luke chapter 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus did not say that the story of the Good Samaritan was a parable, so it might well be the report of an actual occurrence. Of course, you know that story of how a Jewish man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves. He was robbed, beaten, and presumably left for dead. A priest came by and offered no assistance whatsoever. A Levite came by and turned his head in the other direction, wrapped his righteous ecclesiastical robe about him, and continued on his journey without offering to help in any way. But then a Samaritan came by. The Jews generally treated the Samaritans despicably. But this Samaritan stopped, offered his assistance to the man, placed the man upon his beast of burden, took him to the nearest hotel, paid his lodging, promised to return and pay whatever debt the man incurred. Well, for Jesus to tell a story that made the Jews look bad and the Samaritans look good would either be dangerous or self-defeating. But that's the story that Jesus told.

Now, the worst thing that we can do with any parable, especially a parable like this, is turn it into an allegory and make everything stand for something spiritual. The victim becomes the lost sinner who is half dead (alive physically but dead spiritually), helplessly left on the road of life. The priest and the Levite represent the law and the sacrifices, neither of which can save the sinner. The Samaritan is Jesus Christ who saves the man, pays the bill, and promises to come again. The inn stands for the local church where believers are cared for, and the "two pence" are the two ordinances, baptism and communion. Now, if you take this approach to Scripture, you can make the Bible say almost anything you please, and you're sure to miss the messages that God wants you to get.

The road from Jerusalem down to Jericho was indeed a dangerous one. And since the temple workers used it so much, you would have thought the Jews or Romans would have taken steps to make it safe. It's much easier to maintain a system than it is to improve the neighborhood. Most of us can think of excuses for the priest and the Levite as they ignored the victim. Maybe we've used those same excuses ourselves. The priest had been serving God at the temple all week and was anxious to get home. Perhaps the bandits were still lurking in the vicinity and using the victim as "bait." Why take a chance? Anyway, it was not his fault that the man was attacked. The road was busy, so somebody else was bound to come along and help the man. The priest left it to the Levite, and then the Levite did what the priest did - nothing. By using the Samaritan as a hero, Jesus disarmed the Jews, for the Jews and the Samaritans were enemies. It was not a Jew helping a Samaritan. But rather it was a Samaritan helping a Jew who had been ignored by his fellow Jews. So we ought not to spiritualize something that needs to be taken practically and realistically. The emphasis here needs to be upon application, not theory. You see, when Jesus told that story, He said, "Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?" And the lawyer said, "He that showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said, "Go, and do thou likewise." Now, we do not think in terms of priests and Levites today, at least not in the ancient Hebrew sense of the terms. I mean, most of us do not know what a Levite is, and we've never met a Samaritan.

So maybe we would understand it better in the paraphrase of Clarence Johnston from the Cotton Patch Gospel who tells the same story like this: The same man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car and left him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway. Now, it just so happens that a white preacher was going down the same highway when he saw the fellow. And he stepped on the gas and went scooting by. Shortly after, a white gospel song leader came down the road. And when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas. Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped, bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water jug to wipe away the blood, and then laid him on the back seat of his car. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital, and said to the nurse, "You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here's the only two dollars I've got. But you keep account of what he owes, and if he can't pay, I will settle up with you when I return."

Jesus changed the definition of who is a neighbor. He changed it from who they are to what I do, so that the issue is not whether or not a person is a Samaritan or a Jew or a Gentile; whether black or white; whether a good guy or a bad guy. It doesn't even matter if he got himself into the trouble that he is in, for it could be argued that that foolish man never should have traveled such a dangerous and bandit-ridden road as the one from Jerusalem to Jericho. And in a sense, out of his stupidity, he got what was coming to him. But that is not part of the decision. The definition of a neighbor is not in what the other person does or who the other person is. The definition of a neighbor is in what I do to     help others. Now, we have considered the magnitude of this commandment and the meaning of this commandment. I want us to close this message by considering,

III. The Master of this Commandment

As we consider the Master of this commandment, I want to tell you that there is only one person who fully obeyed this commandment. And the person who fully obeyed this commandment is the person who gave it in the first place. Jesus did not just practice what He preached, but He preached what He practiced. Jesus did not judge people and then determine whether or not He wanted to count them as a neighbor. He was not like the Pharisees who seemed to love only those who loved them. But Jesus demonstrated a whole different level of love. And Jesus seemed to accept everyone as His neighbor. He spoke to Roman soldiers and was kind to them, but they were counted to be the enemy. He incorporated into His circle of disciples women, and yet rabbis were not even supposed to speak to a woman. He welcomed little children to come and stand beside Him and to sit on His lap when His very best friends tried to shoo them away and exclude them. He even touched lepers. That was a hideous thought to people of His generation. He touched lepers who were considered to have a loathsome and frightening disease. He ate with publicans and sinners who were the social outcasts of that day. Jesus spent His time teaching the unteachable and reaching the unreachable and loving the unlovable and generally caring for every barefooted nobody who walked on the face of the earth. And as Christians, we're to be like Jesus so that we relate to others as neighbors, based upon that love of Jesus Christ that flows out of us, not on the basis of who they are or what they do.

When Jesus said that Christians would be known by their love for each other, He was envisioning the church of Jesus Christ as this wonderful context in which we would gather together. And even if love is never returned elsewhere, you can be assured that in the context of the Christian community where we love other people regardless of the classifications that might be laid upon them; that we are loved regardless of the classifications that might be laid upon us and that we, in a sense, like batteries that need to be recharged, join together and charge each other up by the love of Jesus Christ. That is part of the life of every Christian. And then we spread out throughout the week, and perhaps longer, and the love flows out of us. And then when we gather back together again, the love flowing through us is obvious and evident. And so Jesus noted that you could see who Christians are because that's the place where you not only have an opportunity to love others, but where you will be loved in return yourself.

The more we love those who are unlovely, the greater the power and love of Jesus Christ that is in us. You say, "Now, how do you do that and what would be a practical answer to the question: How do you express this neighborly kind of love? How do we unleash this love of Christ in us to impact the lives of others?" It means loving others by performing the simplest acts of kindness. It may be mowing a neighbor's lawn in the summertime or raking a neighbor's leaves in the fall. It may be offering baby sitting or picking up the mail for those who are away on vacation. It may include joining a neighborhood watch, and saying, "I care about your house and its safety, and not just my safety and my possessions." It's as simple a thing as reaching in a pocket or a purse when walking down the street and putting a quarter in a parking meter that has expired. And the person there will never know that it's being done. But you've done that act of kindness for her or for him. It's welcoming new neighbors who have moved into the subdivision or who have moved into the apartment down the hall or upstairs. It's praying through the neighborhood. It's saying that on Monday I will pray for the people that are on this side. And on Tuesday I will pray for the people that are on this side. And Wednesday I will pray for the people who are two doors down, and so forth. Christian love is befriending those   who don't have friends. It's not so much looking around and saying, "What can others do for me," but "Who are those to whom I can reach out?" For there are always people who really want to have new friends. It is standing alongside and standing behind those whom others hate and really want nothing to do with them, and becoming that person's advocate. It can be the simplest of things, like yielding the right-of-way when you're driving. It's sending anonymous money through the mail or with a money order to a single mom who is struggling to make it financially. It is taking the professional skills that are yours and using them, not only to make money and make a living and gain possessions, but also to help those who are poor who could never afford your fees or repay what you can do for them. It may be opening your house to others like we're requesting people to do in this Atlanta Host Homes Project. Or maybe you could be that kind of parent who will always drive the other children home when other parents are reluctant to come and pick them up. It's becoming an advocate and a friend to a teenager who is caught up in the juvenile court system and his parents are so frustrated that they've just given up. It's doing what Jesus Christ would do if He were here.


As a part of an assignment for a doctoral thesis, a college student spent a year with a group of Navajo Indians on a reservation in the southwest. As he did his research, he lived with one family, sleeping in their hut, eating their food, working with them, and generally living the life of a twentieth century Indian. The old grandmother of the family spoke no English at all, yet a very close friendship formed between the two. They spent a great deal of time sharing a friendship that was meaningful to each, yet unexplainable to anyone else. In spite of the language difference, they shared the common language of love and understood each other. Over the months he learned a few phrases of Navajo, and she picked up a little of the English language. When it was time for him to return to the campus and write his thesis, the tribe held a going away celebration. It was marked by sadness since the young man had become close to the whole village and all would miss him. As he prepared to get up into the pickup truck and leave, the old grandmother came to tell him good-bye. With tears streaming from her eyes she placed her hands on either side of his face, looked directly into his eyes, and said, "I like me best when I'm with you."

Isn't that the way we feel in the presence of Jesus? He brings out the best in us. We learn to see ourselves as worthy and valuable when we are in His presence. The hurts, the cares, the disappointments of our lives are behind us when we look in His eyes and realize the depth of His love. Our self-esteem no longer depends on what we have done or failed to do. It depends only on the value that He places on us. And to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ is to generate in other people the Indian grandmother's simple statement: "I like me best when I'm with you." Is there anybody in this world that can say that of you? Is there anybody who can look you in the eyes and say, "I like me best when I'm with you?" Speak not for Mr. Rogers, but speak for Jesus Christ when you say to others,

"Would you be mine?

Could you be mine? Won't you please,

Won't you please?

Please, won't you be my neighbor?"