Loving My Neighbor Without Justifying Myself

When confronted with the truth that God invites me to be a participant in the reconciliation of all things in Christ, my gut-level response is something like, “I have no idea what I’m doing and will probably make things worse.”


More than ever, I’m noticing how complicit I am in the brokenness around me through the way I use power and benefit from being in control. This functions on the micro-level of my daily relationships (where I use power/authority over others) as well as the macro-level of the social systems of my “neighborhood” (where those in power are generally catering to my preferences).

The reality is that sin goes deeper and is more insidious than I realized. It’s at work behind the scenes of my words and actions, which means that it often goes undetected, hiding behind the guise of good Christian behavior. Sin is often hiding behind the guise of good Christian behavior. Click To Tweet

That’s why I hesitate. There is a temptation to do the right thing in the wrong way. I know that neighborly love is the right thing, but the temptation is that I will engage in a form of neighborly love where I walk away feeling justified and more in control. This possibility stops me in my do-gooder tracks.

I wonder if many Christians are stalled-out in this predicament. What is the way forward in God’s mission? How do we untangle broken power dynamics from our efforts to love our neighbor?

Participating in God’s mission of setting all things right begins with a new imagination for neighborly love grounded in Christ and his way – one that requires the surrendering of our addiction to power and control – one that subverts our propensity to self-justification – one that does not seek God’s righteousness apart from Christ.

Failing to See Jesus as the Key to Neighborly Love

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is a paradigmatic text for neighborly love. In the parable, Jesus is teaching his disciples to ask, “How do I become a good neighbor?” rather than “Who is my neighbor?” The subtle shift makes a world of difference when it comes to joining God’s mission. It’s the difference between self-justification and genuinely responding to the radical way God is restoring all things in Christ.

Lurking behind the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, was a posture that negated the possibility for the religious expert to allow Jesus to be Lord and actually become Jesus’ disciple. Instead, in his self-justification, the religious expert seeks a path of righteousness where he remains in control within the broken power dynamics embedded in the religious system of 2nd Temple Judaism.

The Gospels consistently show that control is toxic to becoming a disciple of Jesus, and thus a participant in God’s righteousness. Those who fail to see and enter God’s kingdom are portrayed as those who most desperately need to maintain the status quo. The Gospels consistently show that control is toxic to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Click To Tweet

It’s not so much that those who “fail to see” are interested in the wrong thing. The religious expert seeks “eternal life” and summarizes the Law exactly like Jesus does, after all. It’s more that they are unwilling to embrace Jesus and his radical, costly way as the unexpected avenue through which God is restoring all things.

Embracing Jesus would require a complete reorientation and surrender of control. It would require naming and repenting of the sin lurking behind the scenes of right answers and good behavior.

If we miss the extent to which Jesus is redefining God’s righteousness around himself in this parable, like the religious expert and other characters in the Gospels who have socio-religious authority, we might not have eyes to see the Kingdom.

That means the implicit question at the heart of the parable is, “How does someone become a good neighbor?” The answer turns around the reality that this parable is about Jesus’ identity/authority (Christology) before it is about how good people should act (ethics).

Jesus is the Unexpected Outsider and That Changes Everything

Some modern visions for neighborly love unintentionally operate as if Jesus tells a parable about a good Jew helping a Samaritan. We cannot overlook how surprising the entrance of the Samaritan is in the parable. Jesus flips the expectations of his listeners, who would have probably not batted an eye at a parable about good Jew helping a Samaritan.

A parable about a good Jew helping a Samaritan is noble or even inspirational, but it’s not revolutionary. There is no fundamental reorientation that makes room for God’s salvation. If the parable is about a good Jew helping a Samaritan, the religious expert who questioned Jesus may have been shamed into trying a bit harder, but everyone could stay in control. Jesus is merely incidental. He is simply giving ethical tips about how to be a better Jew.

But that’s not how Jesus tells the story.

The way Jesus tells it, where a Samaritan is the faithful agent, the hated outsider is more sensitive to God’s work in the world – is better attuned to the way of eternal life – than the priest and Levite. How could that be?

The way Jesus tells it, where the priest and the Levite avoid the man in the ditch, they are doing their best to uphold stipulations about ritual cleanness. The implication is that “inheriting eternal life” requires a radical, costly compassion that scandalizes typical practices of ritual cleanliness and typical understanding of what it means to be “in” God’s people. In short, Jesus is describing a reality in which the priest and Levite are not in control over God’s righteousness. How could that be?

The answer at the heart of Luke’s Gospel, which is also the difficult nugget for the religious expert to swallow, is that Jesus himself is the unexpected outsider. Jesus is the one, faithful agent of God’s salvation in the world. Jesus is the one bringing God’s justice through radical, costly, self-giving love. And this way of love in Christ flips social-religious power structures in favor of the marginalized and downtrodden.

So, How Do We Become Good Neighbors?

We become a good neighbor by first allowing God’s presence in Christ to disrupt the self-justifying, power-addicted, sinful habits built on the false assumption that we can love without surrender.

Participating in God’s justice requires a complete reorientation in Christ. By allowing the way of God in Christ to define what neighborly love looks like, we make room for exposing systemic sinful postures lurking behind our good behavior. Neighborly love begins when we surrender what is exposed.

The only way, therefore, to untangle broken power dynamics from neighborly love is to habitually relinquish control in Christ’s presence. We can’t know what love looks like outside of a formation into Christ’s radical, costly, self-giving love.

For me, this begins by regularly making space to tend to Christ’s presence within a community that looks like my reconstituted family. In this space our imaginations are baptized in the particular way of God’s reconciling love in Christ.

Here, as we submit one to another and to Christ, we learn how to give up power and preference for the sake of the other. As we resist the temptation merely to be saviors and fixers of problems we feel like we have answered, we also learn how to be present with and to one another. We learn this especially within relationships that are hard or inconvenient.

Within this community gathered by the Spirit around God’s love in Christ, we are formed in Christ’s love in order to extend Christ’s love. We learn to give up power within relationships that are hard or inconvenient. Click To Tweet

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