I went first and foremost to teachings of Jesus. Jesus was a mastermind of the old adage, “being in but not of the world” so I figured his would be pretty sound advice.
As one would imagine, I found an overflow of information on the subject. One of the main reasons God came down, other than His death of the cross and the redemption of the world, was, I believe, to give us a living example of what it looks like to bear the image and light of God to those around us. As I was digging through, a few passages stuck out at me in ways they never had before. Things I’ve read a hundred times, and I’m still getting something new out of them. Isn’t the Bible cool?
The first passage was about welcoming little children. In Luke, Jesus talks about those who welcome in the little children also welcome him, and whoever welcomes him, welcomes the one who send him. (Luke 9:48) Two new things struck me about this passage. One, the context is very important; because these days, what kind of sick person would turn away a child? In our society, we love kids, we view them as cute, valuable, special, in need of love and care. But in Jesus day, children, especially poor children, were often treated as outcasts, much like a leper or a prostitute would have been. They were not considered citizens, or functioning members of society. With this in mind, I don’t believe that Jesus is limiting this command to just children. Rather, I think he‘s using the example of children to point us to a greater, more broad vision, the welcoming in of all those who had been cast out, and whom we are called to love, serve, and welcome in. It’s not just about children, it’s about those around us who are in need of mercy, community, and life-change.
I then wondered about the second half of the statement. The promise, that when we welcome the children, we also are welcoming him and welcoming the one who sent him, God. I used to think of this like I was doing God a favor by being welcoming to others. Like by being loving to them, I was being loving to God. This may be true, but if God is who he says he is, I don’t think he’s looking for any handouts or favors from little old me. I believe what the verse is saying, is when you lovingly engage in the lives of those who are broken and cast out, you invite God into those circumstances and relationships to do his redemptive work. By welcoming the outsiders, you are saying, “I invite your Spirit into my life, Lord, to help me shine your light in their lives and give you the ultimate glory you deserve.” When we love others, we are welcoming the presence of God into our lives. How’s that for living as a Christ follower in society?
I then moved, as if by divine intervention, to the parable of The Good Samaritan. After all, who walks and talks the Christian faith as much as the Samaritan man in that story? This time, as I read, it wasn’t the details of the story itself that began to press my God buttons, but rather the context in which Jesus chooses to tell the story. When I read around the story, I realized that Jesus is telling the story in order to teach one of the “experts on the law” what it means to love your neighbor. After the story, Jesus asks the man, “Now which of these was a neighbor to the man in need?” In this grammatical context, a neighbor is not something you are, it’s something you do. You can’t be someone’s neighbor unless you are neighboring to that person. How do we neighbor to someone? The “expert on the law” tells us. When Jesus asks, he replies, “the one who showed him mercy.”
Being someone’s neighbor has nothing to do with the proximity in which you live to them. Being someone’s neighbor has everything to do with who is in need of mercy and care, and who is willing to answer that persons cry for help and welcome them in, thereby welcoming the presence of God into that relationship. The neighbor is the one who welcomes in the little children, the one who will not cross to the other side of the street to avoid a potentially awkward conversation, or to avoid falling behind on their daily agenda. The neighbor is the one who kneels down, shows grace, mercy, and takes neighbor from a noun to a verb.