Love Thy Neighbor?

Martha and I were talking a while back about a conversation she had with a lady in her church when she was a teenager. The conversation had to do with how to practically live out the command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Taken along with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” it seems a recipe for misunderstanding, because what I want people to do to me is surely not necessarily the behavior that is going to be recognized as loving to them. This was the point of confusion for the lady Martha had the conversation with years ago. Martha had no ready answer to give, and so the end of the conversation was essentially two pairs of shrugged shoulders. 

Years later, we happened to memorize the passage in Leviticus from which Jesus was quoting. As we looked at that passage, we saw a whole new meaning to ‘loving your neighbor as yourself.’ What does it mean in Leviticus? A slew of things in chapter 18 verses 9-18, but in the end of the passage, the part that Jesus quotes, it means not having a secret attitude about someone in my heart that I’ve never given them the chance to set right. It means open rebuke when they are at odds with God, me, or someone else. It means not setting myself up as judge, jury, and executioner of my neighbor. It means not being, literally, the caretaker of a grudge. 

You shall not despise your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the members of your community, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. 
Leviticus 19:17-18 

Honestly, we have both had people love us in this way. We’ve reacted in different ways to it. As a teenager, Miles had someone kindly rebuke him for a joke that wasn’t as thoughtful as it should have been. It wasn’t someone with whom he had a close relationship, and it wasn’t someone he greatly admired for any particular reason. Just an average person in his church. So when this elderly person very kindly, almost tearfully, pulled Miles to the side and told him that an offhand humorous comment had been hurtful to him, Miles was appreciative of the opportunity to make it right, and took the lesson to heart - being more careful in the future. Martha had a similar experience as a teenager. An older woman of the church rebuked her for wearing a shirt not quite long enough when she bent over. It was kindly done, but as a teenager, it didn’t help that the woman in question wore the loosest, drabbest clothes imaginable. So Mar did the whole external “thank you for your input, and I’ll be more careful in the future,” all the while feeling very put-upon and unfairly singled out. But in after-years, she came to appreciate the woman’s effort more. Amazing how those experiences stay with you and tend to change you in one way or another. It may sting for a while, but then the sting wears off and either you realize they are right, or that they are wrong. Or (many times) somewhere in between. 

We’ve had people love us the other way too. The way that says “I wouldn’t want someone to confront me, so I won’t confront him.” How does that usually end up? With other people hearing about how peeved they are with one of us, and with what we’ve done, and us being out of the loop, trying to figure out what happened. Sometimes we find out, sometimes we don’t, but usually the relationship becomes tainted and marred and unable to bear any real strain. And then our reputation, such as it is, is marred. And finally, their character is marred and their listeners’ characters, since gossip twists three times, first the person being gossiped about, second the person gossiping, and third, the person hearing the gossip with that certain delight and satisfaction that hearing gossip gives. 

These people who confronted us were living out part of what it means to be a peacemaker. Often we think that being a peacemaker means letting people walk over you, being weak or limp-wristed, and shrugging off every insult and imposition. Sometimes being a peacemaker does mean these things. But not as a general rule. Being a peacemaker doesn’t mean making no waves. 

What does it look like to be a peacemaker? It means loving your neighbor as yourself — ‘not despising your brother in your heart, but reasoning frankly with your neighbor.’ Honestly, being a peacemaker is hard, dirty, discouraging work. Jesus was the ultimate peacemaker, right? How many times did he have to confront the Pharisees with their blatant hypocrisy and sneakiness? How many times did he have to confront Peter for putting his foot in it? He even had to gently remind his parents about his ultimate mission when they left him in the temple for three days. He made a practice of "reasoning frankly" with whomever he was in contact with. 

Matter of fact, Jesus, speaking as the Lord of the church, commanded his disciples to practice this Levitical exhortation when he said in Matthew 18:15-26 

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” 

Knowing this could be an uncomfortable and sometimes easy to ignore, Jesus makes this promise in the very next verse (that is so often taken out of context) to assure us that we have his blessing when we obey this command. 

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

We as Christians, as fellow brothers and sisters, we as communities, as churches, as families, and as joint heirs of eternity are to love each other in this way. We are to reason frankly with each other and keep things in the open. Is it always obvious what that looks like? No. Is it commonly practiced? No. Is it 100% foolproof? No. Will it always work the way we want it to? No. Are we expected to obey? Yes.

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