“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations. 3:22). “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Both the Old and New Testaments contain the truth of God’s mercy and the command to act similarly. For the Hebrew nation, it meant obeying the law and the prophets. New Testament believers were commanded and encouraged to follow the Lord's commandments of Christ to follow him.
Jesus still tells us the same words: “Follow me.” And for us, following Jesus still means leaving everything behind. In him, we have a new identification and a command to act as he did. The apostle whom Jesus loved wrote, “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).
As Jesus’ disciples, we follow him by living lives of mercy and obedience. When we were children, we played a game called Follow the Leader. No matter what the leader did, we had to follow his or her steps. Now that we are adults and have put away childish things, our Christian walk consists of following in the thoughtful, loving, obedient steps of Lord—self-denial, cross-bearing, and being merciful with an awareness of the needs of our neighbors.
Who Is Our Neighbor?
As our minds become more and more like the mind of Christ, we beome increasingly sensitive to the needs of those around us. Whether we agree or disagree, the truth from Scripture is that anyone in need is our neighbor. Therefore, we must replace the question, “Who is my neighbor?” which restricts our response, with “Whose neighbor am I?” which liberates our response. As we cannot know beforehand whom we will meet, the immediate sight of a neighbor demands a spontaneous answer. In The Deacons Handbook, Lester DeKoster says
Why waste time discussing how we will know who our neighbor is? Just go and be “neighbor” to someone, to anyone, in need. Let the needy find his neighbor in you. Drop the talk. Cut the chatter. Take God's gifts of time, money, goods, talents, counsel, a listening ear, a helping hand out there where someone can use them. To love your neighbor as yourself means simply to be a neighbor whenever and wherever you can.
The person in need is the one whom God places in our path. His or her need may be big or small, physical, emotional, or spiritual. It may be obvious to all, or obvious only to those who can see through the person’s mask or cover-up. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of “The Good Samaritan” to make clear to his listeners who he says our neighbor is. The familiar story tells of a Jewish man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Those who passed by were aware of his injuries and needs but ignored them. The Jewish priest had religious reasons: If the body had been a corpse, and he touched it, he would be unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11). The Levite, a temple worker, would not take any risks to help, either. To these religious officials, law and ceremony were more important than mercy. The Samaritan, however, the one Jewish people despised, was prepared to help. He risked his safety and altered his schedule to show mercy to a needy person of another race and social class.
I often tell the story of how a group of black Christian teens befriended me. At the time I was a high school student who, because of a childhood skull fracture and abuse, was physically and emotionally crippled, despairing of life itself. These friends made it their business to come alongside me, establish a relationship, and offer hope. For three years they showed me God’s mercy and his love for me. They listened to my pain and opened their homes to me. What was the result of this friendship? The result, praise God, was that as a college freshman I came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Like the merciful Good Samaritan, they understood how to be good neighbors.
Welcoming and Forgiving
Jesus lived a life of submission to the Father. He gave up the right to have his own way. He surrendered the right to retaliate and gave up the right of having “sweet revenge” against those who opposed him. His submission was seen in his ability to forgive his oppressor-neighbors: as he was being crucified, Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus’ submissive attitude allowed him to love others unconditionally. Neighbors were a reality for him. He saw worth and value in the needy people he encountered, which is the opposite of what most people—even Christians—do. In our own minds, we keep “those people” at arm’s length, making them peripheral beings, sometimes even worse. We often speak as if such people do not exist as humans (i.e., not created in the image of God). Our perception is that people only have worth if they possess what the world values: money, property, and fame. I have heard people say, “I am not my brother’s keeper” when given some responsibility to help others. Their body language—a shrug or a frown—indicates to me that, to them, “those people” are not worth it.
Despite whether or not people have possessions, Jesus knows the worth of all humankind, and he demonstrated a unique mercy to his neighbors by bearing his cross and walking obediently before his Father. For Jesus, being merciful was not merely performing a service task, but being a servant. His mercy was an intentional, conscious statement of who he was and who we should be as we follow him. Jesus showed us that mercy is a gift that must be shared. He showed us that to be hospitable means to be receptive, welcoming the stranger and turning him/her into a guest. Jesus’ mercy toward his neighbors flowed out of an inward sense of love, joy, peace, and obedience. Our motive for loving and showing mercy to our neighbors is gratitude to God for his eternal, unchanging love for us (think about how the French word merci means “thank you”).
The heir of the Borden Dairy Corporation, William Borden, was a follower of Jesus Christ. And he was thankful. For his high school graduation, his parents gave him a trip. While on the trip, he began to feel a burden for those less fortunate. Later at Yale University, he started a Bible study and founded a mission for those who were on the streets of New Haven. He shared the gospel with orphans, widows, the homeless, and the hungry, offering them hope and showing mercy. When Borden graduated, he entered Princeton Seminary and, upon graduation, sailed to China intending to serve Christ there. Along the way, however, he contracted spinal meningitis and died soon after. When his Bible was discovered, six words were found written on its inside page: “no reserve, no retreat, no regrets.” Knowing God’s mercy, he gave up his earthly possessions to follow Jesus in ministry to those in need. The fruit of his faith was the desire to answer Jesus’s call to follow him and “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.”
Tenth will be hosting a conference on Mercy: God's Call to Embrace our Neighbor with Dr. Ligon Duncan as the featured speaker. You can find more details and register at tenth.org/mercyconference