Two years ago we bought a house in a marginal, but up and coming, neighborhood. On one visit to check out the house we eventually bought, we were greeted by one of the neighbors. He was friendly enough, but it was clear he was “checking out” the new neighbors. He wanted to know about us, what we did, our plans for the house and other information. In short, he wanted to know if we were going to be good neighbors.
It’s not an unusual phenomenon. We all want good neighbors. There is a house nearby that’s been for sale for awhile, and may not sell. The reason? The houses on both sides of this nice house are very rundown. The houses are obviously rental property, and the residents don’t appear to be good neighbors. The house could be a mansion, but because of the neighbors, it will sit empty.
In real estate we have the luxury of choosing our neighbors. We can meet them, get to know them and assess whether or not we’ll be able to get along with them in the future. As Christians, we do not have this luxury. Jesus makes it clear that everyone, without exception, is our neighbor. Everyone, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, kind or mean, gay or straight, is worthy of our help, our love and our support.
Despite Jesus’ commandment we are still tempted to look around for those who are not our neighbors. We still want to pick and choose who is worthy of our compassion and who is not.
I found a startling and unsettling example of this in a recent issue [Nov/Dec 1997] of Moody Magazine. The magazine is published by Moody Bible Institute, an ultra conservative wing of Christians. The entire issue was dedicated to admonishing readers to help the less fortunate. What surprised me first off about the whole issue was its “oh, by the way” tone of dealing with the poor. It’s a shock to me that a group of Christians must be reminded that one of their main goals, as Christians, should be helping those less fortunate than themselves!
Who are our less fortunate neighbors that deserve our help? In an article titled “Why Should We Help The Poor?” Dr. Vernon Grounds goes out of his way to give his readers a way to choose worthy neighbors.
… we must face the reality that some poverty is caused by personal traits like shiftlessness, waste, extravagance, lust and sheer stupidity. … Paul gives an emphatic command in 2 Thessalonians 2: 8-12 regarding indolent believers. In short, we are cautioned, even commanded, not to indulge in misguided sympathy for the poor who don’t deserve our compassion. The God-obedient diligent are not to sacrifice for the care of the God-disobeying indolent.
The words that trouble me the most in that entire passage are “the poor who don’t deserve our compassion.” When did we become judge and jury of who deserves compassion? Dr. Grounds believes he’s found the loophole that gives us that power with the passage from 2 Thessalonians.
… we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:8-12)
Conservative Christians scream whenever their opponents use the Bible out of context, then they feel free to abuse the word of God in the same manner. Dr. Grounds has taken this passage out of context to serve his own needs. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul is referring to a specific group of people. We must understand that in the time of Paul, they expected Jesus to return at any minute. Because they were expecting the end times, some people decided working and making money was a worthless pursuit. These people were beginning to deplete the resources of local charities, so Paul makes a rule, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” This is a specific command, for specific time and place. This is not a commandment for the ages.
If we want to find out who is our neighbor, we must look to the words of Jesus. Dr. Grounds does a very good job of spelling out Jesus’ concern for the poor.
Throughout his ministry, moved with compassion, Jesus fed and healed the multitudes. He instructed his disciples to provide food for the hungry. He warned that neglect of the needy, as in the case of the rich man and Lazarus, would bring down God’s severest judgment. And He emphasized that warning in His awesome vision of God’s judgment of all the nations, at which everlasting condemnation will be pronounced on those who failed to show concern for impoverished social outcasts.
Look closely, my friends, Jesus made no exceptions. In fact, he warns those who do not clothe the naked, or feed the hungry or help the sick that his words to them will be, “Depart from me.” [Matthew 25:41] Jesus will tell them, “whatever you did not for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” [Matthew 25:40] I don’t see any exceptions in those words.
Dr. Grounds doesn’t see it this way. He truly believes the time specific words of Paul gives us the luxury of choosing our neighbors. We don’t have to help anyone who brought the poverty on themselves! This gives us the opportunity to justify withholding aid from just about anyone. For example, that welfare mother wouldn’t be in public housing if she’d stayed in school. She wouldn’t be there if she hadn’t taken up with that shiftless good-for-nothing and gotten pregnant! Her poverty is her own fault, and we don’t need to help her.
It doesn’t end there. If that person had not dropped out of school, and had learned a trade, he wouldn’t be poor today. He doesn’t deserve my help. If that crack addict had just said no, he wouldn’t be mooching off the welfare system, taking my hard earned money. He doesn’t deserve my help!
It goes on and on, until we find that the only neighbors we have left are the ones that look just like us. Just like buying a house, we’ve checked out the neighborhood first. We’ve found a community of Christians we can feel comfortable calling neighbors!
Jesus assures us we are on the wrong track. Dr. Grounds is just like the lawyer in Luke 10:29 who asks Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” We are told the lawyer in this story desires to justify himself. His question is disingenuous. He is really asking Jesus, “who is not my neighbor?”
Jesus tells the lawyer the parable of the Good Samaritan. Through this parable, Jesus makes it clear that everyone is our neighbor. We are not allowed to make exceptions. The Levite and the preacher who passed by the wounded man on the road are not the heroes of the story. It’s the Samaritan, who sees a need, and stops to help.
Perhaps the Levite and the preacher thought to themselves, “if this man had not been walking alone on this dangerous road, he would not have been beaten and robbed. He brought his misfortune on himself. He is not worthy of my help!”
The Samaritan had no such thought. He saw a man in need. The Samaritan did not stop to think whether the man could have avoided his misfortune. He does not care. He helps the man. The well being of his neighbor is his only concern.
Jesus words to us: “Go and do likewise.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.