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Meeting God in My Neighbor

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

“The reality of God is disclosed only as it places me completely into the reality of the world.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1]

Our actions toward others mirror the God we serve.[2] The world we live in belongs to God. It is God’s neighborhood, making us truly neighbors. Nature signals the good work of God’s hands, permitting us to work in humble partnership with it and for it.[3] Who would have ever thought God was a lover of the world in this way? (John 3:16) The Son, sent to the world, is the key to how we relate to and engage with our environment and fellow human beings. Christ has reconciled all things to God; there is no need to jostle for space.[4] God’s neighborliness is not a threat to my neighborhood. Because God moves toward us, we witness the best of neighborliness—in the welcome, invitation, dwelling and care. Truly, God is the best neighbor.

“Neighborly” definitions have always prompted religious/social grappling with the limits of relationality—limits on care, limits on enduring love, limits of inclusivity. Such limitations are unjustly delineated by how we define our neighbor and are haunted by the unknowability of the “other,” creating awe, mystery, love, or hate. Responses of hate have too often dominated our history, evidence of hearts not fully convinced that this planetary neighborhood—everything and everyone—belongs to God.

Human beings live within particular spaces that shape their experience of the world. Some spaces are constructed in ways that illuminate the surrounding world; some are constructed in ways that close off inhabitants from the surrounding world. Many of our contemporary spaces have been built from the ravaged histories of usurped lands and pillaged peoples, all within the advance of commerce. As a result, our lenses of interpretation—our hermeneutical “tools”—have been altered to match this “neighborly” relationship.

We see everything and everyone instinctively as property, peoples, and commerce.[5] Such trenchant, demonizing ways of seeing have haunted biblical hermeneutics even to the present. The paradox: these subtle hermeneutical lenses were understood as a form of creative ingenuity and productive innovation, underlining missional and providential attempts to live out the “love thy neighbor as thy self” motif with Bible and sword. The conquest of unknown worlds, tribes, and peoples under the auspices of being “missional” and “biblical” is not a new insight, however. The key point is that our surroundings, our space—let’s call it our reality—is a hermeneutical lens through which we express who is our neighbor.[6]

The word “neighbor” shows up in the New Testament many times, and this week’s lesson and teacher comments list many of these examples.[7] But they seem to evade deeper issues that surround our contemporary question(s) about our neighbors. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is indeed pregnant with possibilities in its plain reading. How is it, then, that the lesson quickly assumes neighbors are interested in questions about the afterlife, even earnestly seeking the right method to best answer questions about the biblical Law? Further, the neighbor is portrayed as a needy, passive subject requiring rescue by a conscious and alert believer. This checklist of biblical tenants (afterlife, method, law, neediness) subtly substitutes for the teaching’s practical and plain focus on love.

My neighbors are not interested in the lesson’s assumptions. Instead, simple conversations and laughter about our families, sports, and favorite foods jolt the spirit of the space. Rather than a neighbor being solely the object of my charity, my neighbors are the mirrored grace of difference needed for me to find my true human creatureliness. Do we truly not believe our neighbor possesses something to grace us, however different we are? Instead of wondering what we have to offer our neighbors, what if we asked how they enrich our souls, regardless of whether we share a similar faith? What if we searched for those parts of our existence that pose a nonthreat to their existence and vice versa? What does our shared space say about God’s neighborhood and our footing within it?

Neighbors are part of the hermeneutical lens through which we see God’s good work in the world. The fetish for ultra-distinctiveness in contrast to others is unappealing, unattractive, and simply out-of-touch. It breeds isolation and reveals privilege. Substituting eschatological adumbrations for true neighborliness is no-theology.

Not having seen my daughter play outside of our yard, my Muslim neighbor called to check if everything was fine with us. “We missed seeing you. We are checking on you,” he said. We had all been sick. “Thank you so much for calling and checking on us, my brother,” I replied. Then I heard him say, “Just checking on you. We want to be the best neighbors you have ever had.”

Go. Be the best neighbors your spaces will have ever had.



Notes & References:

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Vol. 6 (Fortress Press, 2005), p. 55.

[2] The echo is of the theologian Karl Barth in that “theology is ethics. Ethics is theology.” See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (T & T Clark, 1957) p. 257-321. That God acts towards the world is to ask to whom is God directed. And also, to pinch a little, what is it about the world that God so loves?

[3] I make a distinction between creation and nature here for purposes of sovereign and providential reasons of entangled roles and purposes of the biological kingdoms. Having an ecological eye for these distinctions orients our understandings of God’s love for it. Cf. Psalm 19.1

[4] Colossians 1.19, 20.

[5] See Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and The Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010, p. 15-203). Jennings lucidly ventures through these lenses as pillars of 16th-century conquests creating theological imaginations that would affect the hermeneutical compass for mission and theological education.  

[6] Jason Blakely, We Built Reality (Oxford, 2020), p. 136, “only the art of interpretation can begin to restore our culture to a clearer form of self-understanding that escapes the current delusions and disappointments of our reigning scientism.”

[7] Galatians 5.14; Romans 15.2; Ephesians 4.25; Mark 12.31, 33; Luke 10.27, 29, 36; Matthew 5.43,19.19, 22.39; John 4.5; Acts 7.27; James 2.8, 4.12. I am limiting the use only to the New Testament.


Alex Barrientos serves as the senior pastor of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, MD and is a PhD candidate in theology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Title image by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash.

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