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Wednesday Word: Neighbor-love

May 5, 2021 | Jim Keena

Loving Our Neighbors

Recently, my wife and I received our second coronavirus vaccine. Days later, I explained the rationale for our decision. Here’s the message we posted on social media:

Kim and I recently chose to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. We certainly understand why many have some level of vaccine hesitancy. But for us, our Christian faith influenced our decision-making. Here’s why, because one of the foundational teachings of Jesus is that his followers love their neighbors (Luke 10:27). And in our thinking, getting vaccinated is an expression of neighbor-love. We believe we’re doing our tiny part in nudging the world closer to community immunity. And while “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:30), we want to be good citizens while we’re on earth!

We’re neither judging those with different opinions nor implying they don’t love others. We’re simply sharing how we arrived at our decision. One thing we can all agree upon is we want this pandemic to end as quickly as possible!

Christian Neighbor-love

But let us expand, beyond vaccination, upon what it means for Christ-followers to practice neighbor-love. The ancient wisdom of the Jewish prophet Jeremiah is still relevant. He delivered God’s message to the Israelites after they were “carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer 29:4). God instructed His people to be good neighbors in their new neighborhood. Listen to God’s strange commands for His exiled and enslaved children.

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jer 29:5–7).

God commanded His children to be, of all things, neighborly to, of all people, their conquering captors. They were to practice “critical engagement” as a displaced people living in an unwanted place. Jared Alcántara explains, “What does this look like? According to Jeremiah 29, critical engagement looks like this: build homes, plant vineyards, raise families, and pray for and seek the shalom of the city where God has placed you.” In other words, practice neighbor-love wherever you live. Even in a place you’d rather not live.

Integration Without Assimilation

So, I suggest three ways to express neighbor-love, regardless of where we live. The first is to practice integration without assimilation. This concept is articulated in the expression, “Christians should be in the world but not of the world.” While that isn’t a direct quote from the Bible, it’s consistent with biblical teaching (John 17:14-16). For Christians, integration into the world is being culturally engaged and promoting societal welfare. And this is to be done while maintaining our Christian distinctive and sharing the gospel message. This lifestyle isn’t cultural assimilation. When believers abandon their faith and wholeheartedly embrace the values of secular society, they lose both their gospel voice and cultural influence.

Civility Not Hostility

Second, practice civility rather than hostility. Believers show neighbor-love by honoring the governing authorities and obeying societal laws (cf. Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-15). Jeremiah told the Israelites to pray for and “seek the peace and prosperity” of their captors because what was beneficial for the Babylonians would prove beneficial for the Israelites. As God promised, if Babylon “prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:5–7). It’s a win-win!

In stark contrast, on January 6, the world witnessed the murderous assault of the Capitol police and the seizure of the building. My horror was compounded by embarrassment when several of the insurrectionists displayed Christian symbols and held Bibles aloft, as if their faith justified their criminality. It was a lose-lose situation. They were not seeking “the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jer 29:7). Their hatred and violence were antithetical to Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbors and enemies (cf. Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27, 35). Loving your neighbor is expressed through civility, not hostility.

Inclusion Not Isolation

A third way to love our neighbors is to practice inclusion rather than isolation. Some Christians foster a fortification mentality by building a cultural wall between themselves and secular society. But the purpose of the gospel is to destroy “the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). One way to practice critical engagement is by quietly living in a God-honoring manner. The Apostle Paul echoed Jeremiah’s words when he wrote, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders” (1 Thess 4:10-11).

Shining Light

Christ-followers can love others by practicing integration without assimilation, civility instead of hostility, and inclusion rather than isolation. When Christians practice neighbor-love, it brings light! Or as Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Jim Keena

Professor of Pastoral Theology and Church Relations

The Rev. Jim Keena was senior pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Bozeman from 2008 through early 2020, when he joined the […]

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