The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Your Neighbor Might Actually Live Next Door

It is time to further consider the question: What does it mean to love my neighbor?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 8-18

For Sunday, Feb. 20 , 2011: Year A – Epiphany 7

Ripping the Law from the pages of a conversation between God and God’s people and tacking it up on the wall (or memorizing it) changes it. It becomes a measure of personal ability, worth and righteousness.

Me or You?

Taken in context these codes from Leviticus seem less about how an individual is able to adequately focus on their self, to produce the desired out comes, than it is about interacting with another human being.

These codes, however are not about ones ability to interact with some generalized human being, they are about how I live with the person standing next to me.

The Crowd

Jesus spends a lot of time with crowds in the gospels. The Crowd becomes a character in these narratives. But in all the situations where Jesus ends up teaching the crowds, it is never a result of him seeking them out.

Jesus doesn’t seem to like crowds very much, he hides from them, tries to get away from them. Jesus doesn’t heal crowds, he doesn’t pronounce forgiveness to whole crowds, he singles out people from the crowd. Jesus identifies individuals and personally engages with them.

That Single Individual

Kierkegaard in a remarkable essay, “That Single Individual” (which could easily be retitled: “The Impossibility of Communicating Truth on the Internet”), writes:

To win a crowd is not such a great art; all that is needed for that is some talent, a certain dose of untruth and a little familiarity with human passions….To love your neighbor is to split up a crowd, to single one out from the crowd.

The Hebrew Scripture reading for this week begins with “you shall be holy, because I am holy” and ends with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God has made us holy and here is what it looks like. Don’t hate your neighbor, don’t judge them, don’t steal from them, don’t show deference to one over another—love them.

The Issue of Proximity

The way the Good Samaritan story was always interpreted for me emphasized the Other. My neighbor was really someone who was different from me, foreign to me. I should treat them as one of my own. That of course is laudable, but maybe it lets me off the hook with the person who lives next door. The issue of procimity, I think takes precedent over similarity or dis-similarity. The codes spelled out in Leviticus are about how people can live peacefully and interact positively with the other beside me every day regardless of dis/similarities .

Collecting food or money to send people ravaged by disaster or war is a worthy and one might even say loving action, but it is not the kind of love being talked about here. It is not possible to love crowds of people, people who read my blog, or even people who sit and listen to me preach. It is only possible to love people I know, people I encounter, people on the road in need of my help or beside me at the grocery store.

The Hardest Question

It might be possible to communicate information to a crowd, but maybe it is not possible to communicate authentic truth to a crowd—maybe a crowd isn’t even the best source of truth. I think it is time to further consider the question: What does it mean to love my neighbor?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. David Kaufman says:

    Given the number of responses to date, it appears that your question is too hard…

    In reflection, it seems that most media folks know that you have to personalize the story to set the hook. We can talk about the needs of the earthquake victims but once we tell about “Jose’ and his little sister,” then we’ve touched our hearts. Most of us like to love close enough that we can see the immediate outcome of intervention – the smile, the freshly painted walls, the new shoes, but don’t inconvenience me so much that I have to change MY plans, MY opinions, ME. Then you’re getting too needy, too close, requiring too much love.

How do you read?