At some point last year the population of the world will top seven billion. Love God and love your neighbour is the summary of the law. But how do we love seven billion neighbours? How should we respond when we hear of floods, revolutions, earthquakes or slum life? What responsibility do we have towards all these people?
It is the question a religious teacher asks Jesus in Luke 10. He wants to define the task of loving our neighbour. He wants to know where his responsibility starts and stops.
In response Jesus tells the parable of Good Samaritan. It is a story that breaks the boundaries of locality and ethnicity. The man who is a neighbour to the wounded man is not from his tribe or nation. He is a stranger, a foreigner, an enemy who encounters this man in his need and does something about it. My neighbour is anyone I see in need.
That was okay until television became a mass medium. Now people who were once far away and unseen are now brought into our front rooms. We see them suffering as we eat our dinner. If my neighbour is anyone I see in need, what happens when I see one billion hungry neighbours? Or three billion poor neighbours? Or five billion lost neighbours?
1. God is gracious: let God be your Saviour
One of the things that often motivates these kinds of questions is a sense of guilt. Again there is nothing new in this. Luke tells us the religious teacher asks ‘Who is my neighbour?’ because ‘he wanted to justify himself’ (Luke 10:29). Maybe he wanted to feel good about himself or impress others or be right with God. So he wants a defined and achievable task.
But Jesus smashes his world. You cannot turn love for neighbour into a checklist. If you made a checklist of seven billion people the pile of paper would be 9.4 miles high. If you spent an hour loving each person (and I do not know what you are going to do in an hour) it would take you 800,000 years to love seven billion people.
The point is this: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is a great question to ask, but not if you want to justify yourself.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is followed in Luke’s Gospel by the story of Martha and Mary. Martha being a good neighbour. But Jesus says to her, ‘You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’ (41-42) And what is that Mary has chosen? To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his words (39). And what does Jesus say? ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) He hangs on the cross and says, ‘It is finished.’ The work is done. There is nothing left for you to do.
You do not have to save yourself through what you do. And you do not have to save the world through what you do.
2. God is great: let God be their Saviour
It is not as if the world has got out of control and you need to step in to sort it out. We do not have to take responsibility for everything because God is control. Seven billion people might be a list 9½ miles high, but God knows every single one.
It is your job to be a faithful follower of Jesus, working hard to serve him and love others. Take responsibility for what God has called you to do. But it is not your job to save the world. So do not take responsibility for saving the world or your city or your neighbours or your family. It is not job to sort out your spouse or your child or your neighbour. It is your job to love God and love others and then trust God with everything else.
And get a vision for what God is doing. Your little contribution might seem a drop in the ocean of seven billion needy neighbours. But God is working in thousands of ways across the world through thousands of people. And he takes your contribution and weaves it into his grand plan.
So we need not nor can we justify ourselves nor should we set ourselves up as a saviour. In a future post we will consider how we should respond to seven billion neighbours.