I live in a neighborhood with big houses and beautifully manicured lawns. It’s quiet here except for occasional airplanes that can be heard overhead. People in my neighborhood are friendly and I often wave to them as I pass by on my way to school, or the baseball field, or as I’m heading off to church. I rarely speak to my neighbors. I’m not really sure why. I guess it’s because I’m busy doing my thing and so are they.
As I think about the words of Jesus “love your neighbor as yourself,” I have to ask myself what these words mean to me. How can I love someone that I don’t even know or have a relationship with? Then again, who really is my neighbor?
I’m an enthusiastic gardener, and like many in Texas I cherish every shade-giving tree in our yard. We have two or three trees that are probably 50-75 years old. During a spring thunderstorm last year, I returned from an outing to find that during the storm one of my favorite trees had been completely uprooted and destroyed. I was heartsick and nearly in tears. Then to add to my sorrow, as I walked around to the back of the house to assess potential damage, I saw that two more aged trees had lost large limbs.
I remember thinking, “I knew I should have prayed over those trees.”
Silly? Maybe. God immediately reminded me of Jonah. You remember, don’t you? God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the people of the coming destruction because of their wickedness; and Jonah did not want to go. So he hopped on a boat headed for Tarshish instead.
Thinking he was hiding from God, Jonah settled in and fell asleep.
During a violent storm on the open water, Jonah woke up to be interrogated and then thrown over board by the other passengers.
Jonah had a second conversation with God and this time he obeyed the command to go to Nineveh to warn the people. The people of Nineveh listened and believed in God, humbled themselves before Him, hoping that He would relent and spare them. When God saw their deeds that they had turned from their wicked ways, He did relent concerning the calamity He had declared he would bring upon them.
Jonah’s response? Anger. He says, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people.” (Jonah 4:2, NLT)
Jonah did not want this enemy of Israel to be spared. So he went outside the city to sulk and wait. It was a hot day. God arranged for a plant to grow over Jonah. Soon its broad leaves spread over Jonah shading him from the sun. This eased some of Jonah’s discomfort and he was grateful for the plant. But God had a lesson for Jonah. He sent a worm that attacked the plant and it withered and died. God sent a scorching east wind and the hot sun beat down on Jonah in such a way that he was faint and desired to die. Jonah was angry again.
This is where the story gets personal. Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry for a plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only, at best, short lived. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:10-11, NLT)
Like Jonah, God had a lesson for me too. I had to be honest with myself and with God.
My sorrow over the loss of a tree was starkly contrasted with my lack of concern for those in my sphere of influence who are living in spiritual darkness.
As a Christian, shouldn’t I have the heart of God?
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9, NASB)
I began to look at people differently. Is it possible that the nameless lady that I see every week at the dry cleaners is really my neighbor? What about the teenage girl who checks me out at the local grocery store? Or what about the mom on the soccer field who is in a bad marriage and at the end of her rope?
“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4, NASB)
God reminded me that a little kindness and compassion, in a world that is hurting and desperately in need of a Savior, is one way that I can love my neighbor. Caring for people is at the heart of the Gospel message.
Jesus said in Matthew 9:12, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.”
The granddaddy of all trees in our backyard sits right behind our house. It is a beautiful tree that has an expansive canopy that protects our house from the western sun in the evening. We call it the “big” tree.
Recently, during another spring storm, my husband and I woke up to lightening and low booms of thunder. The wind was blowing hard.
Then we heard it, a massive cracking sound. My husband said, “There goes the big tree.”
For a moment, I was sorry. Then I was able to roll over and go back to sleep.
After all, it was only a tree.