Why “Who is My Neighbor?” is the Wrong Question to Ask

“Minimum viable product” is a term in the technology development world. The theory behind it is this: as quickly and as inexpensively as possible, roll out a form of a technological product or service that’s not finished, but nevertheless will be received by potential customers. The idea is that with technology, a product is in constant development; the website or platform or service you roll out in year one will not be the same in year two, three, and so on. The minimum viable product, then, is important because it provides the base layer to build on. To further develop out. Start with as little as you possibly can because it gives you room to grow and change as you learn from customers about what they really want.

It’s a great concept for technological rollout. It helps you not be too committed to one way; it keeps you from locking in all your options and gives you the flexibility to change as time goes by. And that makes sense.

But the minimum viable product does not make sense in other realms of life. Take marriage, for example. Imagine taking the same philosophy to the altar with you, and sort-of, kind-of promising to be a little committed at first, but then we’ll see what happens. No, I don’t think a “minimum viable product” marriage has a good chance of making it.

And so it is with following Jesus. Jesus will not allow us to settle for a minimum viable product when it comes to following Him, though we might often wish it to be so. That was certainly the case for the expert in the law who questioned Jesus in Luke 10:

Then an expert in the law stood up to test him, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law?” he asked him. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and “your neighbor as yourself.”

You’ve answered correctly,” he told him. “Do this and you will live.”

So far so good, right? I mean, if we even put aside the fact that this was not an honest question, but instead one born of pride, Jesus still entertained the question. And to his credit, the man got the answer right. Here’s the summary of the entire law, the “CliffNotes” version of what it means to live rightly before God:

Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it.

But the man wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to know certainly that he had achieved the minimum viable product. That is, he wanted to know how low the bar went when it comes to loving one’s neighbor. What, in other words, was the minimum he had to do in order to meet this requirement? And so the man continued with another question:

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Do you see the spirit behind the question? The man wanted to make sure he wasn’t doing one thing more than what was required of him; he wanted to make sure he was meeting the minimum; that the product of his life was certainly not the best, but that it passed muster.

But Jesus will not allow us to settle for the minimum. And in response, Jesus gave His answer in the form of a story we’ve come to know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here was a man not focused on the minimum. Here was a man not fixated on the lowest he could give and still be found acceptable. Here was a man instead who wasn’t focused on himself at all, but instead on the need before him, and in light of that focus was willing to go far past the minimum viable product of helping a stranger on the side of the road.

I wonder as I look at my own life how often I read the Bible and subconsciously think, “What must I do in response to this to get by?” Or, to put it in the words of this expert in the law, “What’s the least I can do in order to feel that I’ve justified myself?”

“Who is my neighbor?” is the wrong question to ask. Indeed, for the Christian, the right question to ask is more like, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” And the answer, of course, is no one. That’s the point. But it’s also the place we can get to only when we have the freedom from knowing we no longer have to justify ourselves. When we stop seeking to justify ourselves because Jesus has already done it, we can move past the minimum and into a lifestyle of generous and self-forgetful service.

So if I, or you for that matter, find ourselves clutching onto our time, resources, or money, wondering what the minimum is we have to give of these things, perhaps the root of it all is that same old attempt at self-justification. Be free of it today, Christian, for Jesus has justified you.

And now go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).

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