Sometimes the life of faith is a struggle. Holding out hope in a desperate world isn’t always easy. Other times, we bask in the love and faithfulness of God who loves us dearly. At other times, a moment of clarity allows us a little vision into who God is calling us to be. As Lutheran Christians, we know that our human successes, identities, struggles or failures are not nearly as important as who God is and what God has done through Jesus. And yet, the fact that we have been redeemed at a high price leads to the conclusion that we are to glorify God with all that is in our control, even our very bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20).
For those who wish to have intimacy with God and fellow humans, the psalmist advises that being a good neighbor is the heart of what God desires. Living with integrity and righteousness and speaking the truth makes one a dependable and trustworthy neighbor (Psalm 15:2). In the same way, one who refrains from slandering or doing evil toward a neighbor, or impugning a friend, is a good and trustworthy neighbor (3). Being a good neighbor who is pleasing in God’s sight always has economic dimensions as well. The psalmist derides those who seek to benefit (charge interest) from lending to someone in need (5). Those who profit from accusing the innocent are also refusing a loving, intimate relationship with God and neighbor. The psalmist makes a clear case that those who are good to their neighbors will be welcome with God.
Jesus takes up this same refrain in the beatitudes. Among others, Jesus blesses the gentle, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers and those who have been persecuted for righteousness. These people are good neighbors, who perform righteousness among their neighbors and wage peace among enemies. The merciful defuse tensions and forgive affronts. Those who are punished, perversely for doing the right thing, should be happy and not seek revenge. This is the sort of person whom Jesus is trying to turn each of us into. If being a Christian means following Jesus and being conformed to his image (Romans 8:29), we must allow the Spirit to make us into people who love all our neighbors, especially when loving comes at a cost to us.
If being a Christian means following Jesus and being conformed to his image, we must allow the Spirit to make us into people who love all our neighbors.
Loving even when it hurts is the height of foolishness in cultures that seek to make us rugged individuals over whom others have no power. God knows this and, through Paul, proudly sets up divine “foolishness” over earthly “wisdom.” Indeed, God makes foolish the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:20). To make the point that God is not trying to be wise by human standards, Paul says God specifically chose the foolish, the weak and the ignoble (literally “low-born”) things of the world in order to undo the established hierarchies by which humans judge each other (27-29). The despised weak who forgive their neighbors and go on practicing righteousness are the people with whom God identifies.
In Micah, God lifted up lessons for the Israelites from their own history. God called to mind the three children of Yocheved and Amram: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. God sent them to lead the Israelites as prophets, through word and deed and service to their neighbors. Then God contrasted their example of self-sacrificial community service with Balak and Balaam. These two sought to harm the Israelite refugees who had fled slavery and arrived at their border. The Israelites had done nothing to threaten the Moabites or Midianites. Indeed, they had recently fought a reluctant (Numbers 21:22), but successful, campaign against the Amorites who had been oppressing the Moabites and taking their territory (26). Instead of thanking them, Balak hired Balaam to curse the Israelites. When Balaam was unable to curse the Israelites directly, he resorted to trickery to convince them to commit idolatry (Numbers 31:16). God brought up Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Balak and Balaam to illustrate how some people are loving toward their neighbors, and how others seek to curse them.
We need to hear the famous and beloved words of Micah 6:8 as they were spoken about a people lost in the wilderness, unsure of what to do next or where to go. The experience of wilderness confusion and disorientation was equally true of the generations leaving slavery in Egypt and then of the generations that witnessed Israel’s and Judah’s downfalls. In our disorientation, we can’t merely cling to tradition. Rather than just ticking off boxes or offering sacrifices, God wants God’s people to do justice for each other and to love being merciful to each other. Only after we are good to our neighbors can we walk humbly with our God.
Nothing we can do as humans can save us. God’s grace alone accomplishes that. And yet, what we do has profound implications for how we relate to God and neighbor. The prophets, poets, apostles and Messiah all agree that God is passionate about us loving our neighbors as an act of worship and obedience to our God. Let us look for opportunities to love God and our neighbor!