In the city a good neighbor often boils down to this: he’s quiet and doesn’t cause any trouble. There may be a particular neighbor or two you really become friends with, taking turns having one another over for dinner, going fishing together, loaning your lawn mower and babysitting once in a while, but the rest are confined to a nod when you pass one another on the street and a quick word over the backyard fence if you both happen to be out at the same time.
In the country, because you are so far out of town and away from help, “neighbor” takes on a much larger meaning. The very lifestyle means you have far more need of one another. You pull one another’s vehicles out of the mud. You tag team generators when the power goes out for more than a couple of hours. You feed one another’s livestock when the other one has to be out of town a few days. You swap garden tilling for tractor mowing and tomatoes for blueberries. You help one another shell peas and shuck corn, and then work together one hot afternoon to get it all put up. You help load sick, but heavy, pets in the pickup for a trip to the vet. You trade shooting lessons for help wiring the shed. You loan cars when one is in the shop, or chauffeur a sick neighbor to the doctor if you need it yourself. If a widow is alone, you load up her woodstove and get it set, ready to light on a cold night. If a husband is away and there is a household emergency—like the refrigerator door falling off!—you head down the lane immediately and screw it back on. When a storm passes through and leaves a live oak half out of the ground leaning over a house, all the neighbors drop everything and run with their tractors, chains and chainsaws to help. There is something a little more primal about being a neighbor in the country.
We’ve had neighbors like that and we’ve tried to be neighbors like that in return. I think it’s the sort of thing Jesus had in mind when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. This isn’t a matter of borrowing a cup of sugar. It isn’t about keeping the TV low in the wee hours or not parking on someone else’s property. It’s about real life and death matters, real trials and suffering, and aiding in whatever way you can.
Maybe the Levite and the priest were used to city neighbors. This guy on the side of the road certainly wasn’t being a good neighbor to them, causing them all sorts of trouble and a delay in their schedules if they had stopped to help. But the truth is, you can be a bad neighbor anywhere, country or city, and the Lord expects a whole lot more from us than that. He expects us to do just as that Samaritan did, helping beyond the expected—just think what a couple night’s lodging would cost today—and yes, for a perfect stranger. Was he a good guy or a good-for-nothing? We don’t know and that’s the point. If someone needs our help, we help, even a stranger and even when we don’t have time to check and see if we are being good stewards of our money.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself” was recognized by Jews as the second greatest commandment. Yet they argued long and hard over who exactly their “neighbor” was. It most cases it boiled down to a good practicing Jew. We’re big on castigating those Pharisaical Jews who knew the Law but explained it away. I think we have the same problem.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:14)