forgiveness • peacemaking • reconciliation
equality • poverty • missions


Mankind Is Not My Neighbor

December 4, 2019 by

The Good Samaritan by Gustave Moreau c. 1870
The Good Samaritan, Gustave Moreau c. 1870

Jean Paul Sartre once quipped: “Humanity I love; it’s my neighbor I can’t stand.” It’s easy to love an abstraction, to trumpet an ideal. But when it comes to loving the person right next to us (or right next door), that’s a different matter.

God’s universal love is always particular. Israel, a tiny, nondescript, nomadic people, was elected by God to carry out his redemptive purpose for the world. It was for the sake of the nations that God led this people to the Promised Land. Similarly, it was in Christ, a singular human, that God came to redeem the world. God’s love then manifested itself through a tiny band of disciples, who loved and served one another. God’s love is real because it is concrete.

I got to know Steven in graduate school. He and I had been in several classes together. He asked really good questions, but struggled to keep up. Midway through one semester his tutor got ill. He was going to fail the course unless he received some help. My load was especially heavy that semester, and I was determined to maintain a perfect 4.0. I was anything but inclined to offer him my assistance.

To love, to really love, will always cost us something. But usually what we “lose” – like my perfect 4.0 – is of very little importance. What we gain is far greater than the sacrifice demanded of us. The problem with loving our neighbor is not about how, but about pride and ego and selfishness.

This is why Jesus spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Jesus never answered the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Instead, Jesus asks “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor?” Neighbor love is about being a neighbor! When we meet someone in need, we need to go and help – and not just give a token of our time or resources, but provide them what they truly need, even if it costs us something.

For Jesus, love is the most personal act one can perform: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. . . .” (John 3:16). He gave himself. Love is not a product or a service you pay for, but a full-bodied act of personal care.

Long ago I read an article entitled, “Mankind is not my neighbor.” The title got me really angry. But the point of the article was simple: God’s universal love is only known and demonstrated in the particularity of individual human acts. Perhaps this is why Jesus gave us the church, to actually love one another. Sadly, for too many of us the church has also become an abstraction. Giving each other the greeting of peace during a worship service just doesn’t cut it when we are actually called to wash one another’s feet.

Christian love is anything but some all-inclusive embrace. To want to love everybody is to love nobody. Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it this way: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing when compared with love in dreams.”

God’s love in action is thoroughly laid out in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46). It is by personally giving water to the thirsty, inviting the stranger into our own home, clothing the naked, looking after the sick, and visiting those in prison that God’s kind of love is known. If we are honest, it is easier to depend on a welfare system or professionals than to get our own hands dirty.

Institutions, policies, systems and charities are perhaps necessary in a world where the free market infects every sphere of life. But these can easily lull us to sleep, making us think that they can do the work we are all actually called to do. Although mechanisms of justice are important, continuing the ongoing struggle to overcome ourselves, and then really serving each other with love, is far, far better.


About the author

Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore and his wife Leslie live in Denver, CO, where they form a small house community with friends and visitors...

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