Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
Created In Community
In the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2, the first time we are presented with something being “not good” is when Adam is seen as alone (Genesis 2:18). God, who in a unique and mysterious way is singular yet community in the Trinity, made humans in his image. We are individuals, yet were made for togetherness. God made the family. God remade the world initially through Noah’s family. God remade the world again through the family of Abraham, eventually leading to the nation of Israel. God continues this new creation through the community of the church, which has impact on both society and the family. God calls His people into community, not isolation.
It is not surprising, then, that Scripture speaks a great deal about how people should interact with and toward one another. Theologians throughout the ages readily note that of the Ten Commandments, at least six of them have to do with how people treat each other, rather than how they treat God. This number increases to seven if we include Sabbath keeping as a “law of community” since Jesus himself declared that the Sabbath was made for man and his benefit, with particular focus on the issues of work and rest in a social setting (Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2:23-28).
The reformer Martin Luther spoke and wrote a great deal about the need for Christians to understand their place in community. “Luther taught that God created three institutions or ‘estates’ for human beings to live in: the church, the state, and the household” (Veith and Moerbe, Family Vocation, p.24-5; see also Luther’s Confession of 1528). While it is quite true that we are saved by grace and not by works, the grace that saves us causes us to work unto God’s glory. And how exactly do we do that? By “loving our neighbor” (Mark 12:28-34). “Though God doesn’t need our good works, our neighbor does. Our neighbor is in need. God commands us to love and serve that neighbor” (Veith & Moerbe, 29). All believers have some “good work” (Ephesians 2:10) that God has set before them to do in each community in which they live: family, church, and society at large.
Who Is My Neighbor?
“And who is my neighbor?” was the questioned asked of Jesus by the self-justifying lawyer (Luke 10:25-37). This is indeed the point at which we tend to move towards foolishness as it relates to loving our neighbor as ourselves. We want to define the criteria, usually not to find the expanse of the love or the depth and width of the service called for, but rather, to find out who is excluded and to assume that we are already doing a good job fulfilling this command. So Jesus, in his usual way, tells an unbearably hard story. A man, presumably Jewish, was taking a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho and is assaulted. He is robbed and left for dead. A priest passes him by. A member of the tribe of Levi passes him by. Then the unthinkable happens – a “good-for-nothing, let’s take three extra days on our trip to walk around his country” Samaritan comes by. And he stops. And he helps. And he does so extravagantly. The lawyer concludes rightly that “the one who showed mercy” was the man’s neighbor. In other words, as we have seen, the neighbor needed the good works – and by God’s grace, the Samaritan is the one that performed these good works. He was the neighbor.
So for us, who is our neighbor? If we are believers, are citizens, and have any family relations at all, then we have three sets of neighbors – those in our church, those in our society, and those in our homes. And our call to love them can include a myriad of activities on their behalf. When we work to provide food for our families, when we take a meal to a family in pain, when we pray together, when we vote, when we pay taxes, when we instruct our children, when come together around the Scriptures – all of these things show a love of neighbor in the various contexts in which we live.
The Range of Foolishness
The Scripture gives ample warning about God’s dissatisfaction with treating our “neighbor” in a contemptible way. A large section of the Old Testament Law dealt with social interaction, whether between national Israelites or their foreign relations with neighboring peoples. John declares, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:19). So, how do we act like fools as it relates to our neighbor?
The obvious answer is the extreme case of social injustice. When the wicked oppress the poor, needy, and parentless, and society could do something to stand against it and prevent it, but does not, then those doing the oppressing and those allowing the oppression are being foolish toward their neighbor. Yet, it would be very easy for us to simply move past foolishness toward neighbor by only pointing to extreme cases of social injustice. But what about the more subtle things that show us to be fools regarding our neighbors? What about the way in which we use our tongues toward our neighbors? How do we speak about the members of our family, our church, our society? We are called to be people of grace and mercy – such as the life of the “good Samaritan.” Are we gracious in our speech? (Ephesians 4:25-32) Do we suffer for righteousness sake as a means of showing love to our neighbor? (1 Peter3:8-22) Are we forgiving, merciful, and compassionate, in the same manner that God has been toward us? (Matthew 6:9-15)
The “Golden Rule” of Matthew 7:12 declares, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This is the picture of being wise toward our neighbor. When we do our work for the benefit of society, we love our neighbor. When we vote with the greater good and God’s glory in mind, we love our neighbor. When we speak with compassion and humility, even in the midst of suffering and hardship, we love our neighbor. When we care for and provide for our families, we love our neighbor. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is wisdom in the context of our neighbor. When we are unnecessarily harsh, cold, cruel, critical, etc. toward our neighbor we are being foolish.
Often, the issue of being a fool concerning our neighbor is one of discontent. We are not satisfied with something about our family, church, or society, something that is not sinful, but preferential, and we press its change through severity. We want what we want (see Part 1 of this series) and we are not content. The journey from being discontent in the heart to becoming a malcontent in the world is a short one. When we really love our neighbor, who needs our love and good works, we show that we really love God, who needs nothing at all. The call to follow Jesus is a call to wisdom – and wisdom calls for us to behave in a certain manner toward all of our neighbors, even those that would seem to be our enemies.
For Further Reading