THE BLOG
01/22/2016 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Avoid (or Not Avoid) Your Neighbor

"Love your neighbor!" That's what I said as I challenged my church with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After concluding the service, I made my way home. As I climbed the stairs to exit the subway, I saw him--a man appearing to be homeless, begging for change. "Can I have a dollar?" he asked each passerby, who looked down at the ground instead of into his eyes, refusing to acknowledge his humanity.

I, too, looked away and continued walking. With each step, though, my feet felt like they were getting heavier and heavier--to the point that I could no longer continue moving forward. In this moment, it was as if I had heard two voices. One was the faint, defeated voice of the man asking for change. The other was a more familiar voice, reciting the remnants of that morning's sermon. "Don't be the priest or the Levite who walked by, but be 'the one who showed him mercy'" (Luke 10:37).

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Though people everywhere are vulnerable to exploitation, oftentimes we walk right by them without "seeing" them. As we "pass by," we inevitably dehumanize the very people God loves and values. In his book, Generous Justice, Tim Keller writes, "Jesus taught that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one's spiritual compass, the heart." In other words, a heart not bent toward grace and mercy has not experienced true compassion. When we ignore the poor, we show that we have not yet understood our own poverty.

Dehumanization, the active refusal to recognize the image of God in others, is at the heart of every form of exploitation. It's especially obvious in the commercial sex and labor trade, where the individual is seen merely as a commodity to be bought and sold. However, on a daily basis we also evidence the seeds of dehumanization in our own hearts each time we ignore the image of God in our neighbors.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus does not explore possible reasons for which the priest and the Levite walk by the vulnerable man. He does not say, for example, "Maybe they do not want to be taken advantage of" or "Maybe the priest wants to remain ritually pure." Their reasons are irrelevant because they are actively choosing to walk away from the half-dead man and to not show compassion. Their actions testify to the fact that they have decided not to love their neighbor as they love themselves. Though they profess to follow God's law, in their daily practice, they fail miserably. Self-protection, fear, and apathy are not excuses for passing by; they are indicators that reveal our hearts.

As Jesus shares this story, He wants us not only to identify with the priest and the Levite; he also wants us to see our own neediness in the vulnerable man. Though the man in the road was half dead, the scriptures explain that we were completely dead--dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). Like the man in the road, we are unable to fix what is wrong with us. Naturally, we will always find it difficult to choose others over ourselves. Yet Christ did not leave us in this predicament. As a matter of fact, he came to where we were. On the cross, he did not merely risk his life to help us; he freely gave it. Today, he speaks life into our death--even when we cannot love him or anyone else. He comes to our brokenness and vulnerability to rescue us by his grace. In this way, Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan.

With this parable in mind, I turned and began talking to the man--whose name, I discovered, was Timothy. As I looked in his eyes, his face brightened up. I asked him what he needed, and he told me he just wanted a sandwich. So we went to the local convenience store, and ordered whatever he wanted. As we ate together, he shared how excited he was to spend time with us. He invited us to swing by his shelter. He even gave us the number of his new prepaid cell phone.

As he shared his story, I began to notice a change in my own heart. Though I had initially wanted to walk by, I now find myself wanting to stay. In remembering God's free grace on my behalf, I found myself being more compassionate and gracious. In this way, the gospel freed me to protect him, not myself. My eyes were opened to see him as someone God loves, someone created with God-given dignity; not a mere statistic. I would like to say that we became great friends at that moment, but if I am being honest, I have to admit that we lost touch.

A year later, though, I was standing on the street, waiting to go into a meeting, when I noticed a man begging on the side of the road. As he looked down, he asked each passerby for change. He seemed weak, weathered by a harsh life. I walked up to him and talked with him. "I love this town," he said. Shocked, I asked, "Why?" He replied, "Because people like you stop and talk." Something about him seemed eerily familiar. I asked his name, and he said "Tim." I smiled. "We've met!" He replied, "Yes, I thought it was you. I remember that time you stopped and bought me a sandwich."

The gospel reminds us that Christ loved us when we had no capacity or desire to love him back. This transformational love sets us free from our shackles of comfort and self-protection to care for our neighbors. With the Gospel fresh in our minds, we can stop dehumanizing our vulnerable neighbors and love them instead. In this way, we can give value to those whom we have devalued. You can show mercy because you have been shown mercy.